Singapore’s sweeping anti-fake news law, which critics warn could be used to suppress free speech in the already tightly controlled Asian city state, came into force Wednesday.
Under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, it is now illegal to spread “false statements of fact” under circumstances in which that information is deemed “prejudicial” to Singapore’s security, public safety, “public tranquility,” or to the “friendly relations of Singapore with other countries,” among numerous other topics.
Government ministers can decide whether to order something deemed fake news to be taken down, or for a correction to be put up alongside it. They can also order technology companies such as Facebook and Google – both of which opposed the bill during its fast-tracked process through parliament – to block accounts or sites spreading false information.
The act also provides for prosecutions of individuals, who can face fines of up to 50,000 SGD (over $36,000), and, or, up to five years in prison. If the alleged falsehood is posted using “an inauthentic online account or controlled by a bot,” the total potential fine rises to 100,000 SGD (around $73,000), and, or, up to 10 years in prison.
Companies found guilty of spreading “fake news” can face fines of up to 1 million SGD (around $735,000).
The government has promised anyone who is affected by the bill will be able to lodge an appeal quickly and cheaply, but rights groups and lawyers have repeatedly warned it could be subject to abuse and may have a stifling effect on free speech.
Singapore’s Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam said that ministers will have to explain why a piece of content is false if they are ordering a takedown or correction, and will not simply be able to arbitrarily issue a ruling.
Speaking at the time Parliament was considering the bill, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong the “power to hold online news sources and platforms accountable if they proliferate deliberate online falsehoods.”
“If we do not protect ourselves, hostile parties will find it a simple matter to turn different groups against one another and cause disorder in our society,” Lee said, echoing concerns voiced by other lawmakers that Singapore’s small, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society makes it particularly vulnerable to misleading content spread online.
But despite repeated assurances by the government that the bill is only intended to stop the rapid spread of malicious falsehoods, many critics remain unconvinced, pointing to Singapore’s poor record on press freedom and protecting political dissent.
In the most recent world rankings on press freedom by watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Singapore placed 151 out of 180 countries, among the worst positions for a country that considers itself a democracy.
Human Rights Watch Asia deputy director Phil Robertson told CNN in April he expected the new bill – which comes ahead of elections next year – to be used for “political purposes.”
“The Singapore government has a long history of calling everything they disagree with as false and misleading,” he said.
While the law is aimed primarily at controlling content within Singapore, rights groups have also pointed to the potential leverage it will give over big tech firms and international media with large presences in the city state, including Facebook, Twitter and Google.
“This law would give Singapore overwhelming leverage over the likes of Facebook and Twitter to remove whatever the government determines is ‘misleading’,” Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southeast Asia, said in a statement. “This is an alarming scenario. While tech firms must take all steps to make digital spaces safe for everyone, this does not provide governments an excuse to interfere with freedom of expression – or rule over the news feed.”
The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a grouping of prominent judges and lawyers, also condemned the law ahead of its introduction, saying there was a “real risk that the law will be misused to clamp down on opinions or information critical of the government.”
Controls on speech
Singapore is only the latest country to introduce new regulations aimed at stopping the spread of false or extremist content online.
Often these laws are fast-tracked through legislatures in response to specific events or media panics, without the scrutiny that would typically accompany such far-reaching laws.
In April, after just two days of deliberations – and over the protests of critical lawmakers, industry experts and rights groups – Australia introduced new legislation in response to New Zealand’s Christchurch massacre, much of which was streamed online. Under the laws, internet firms like Facebook and Google will be compelled to remove violent content or face massive fines and even prison time.
Similar proposals in the United Kingdom are currently in a consultation phase, though their passage may by stymied by ongoing political turmoil over Brexit and a potential election within the next year.
In Fiji, officials used a media storm over revenge porn to ram through a law opposition legislators and activists said was a “Trojan horse” for censorship and control of online speech.
Speaking about the Singaporean legislation, Kirsten Han, editor of the South East Asia-focused news site New Naratif, told CNN in April that the problem was in part fueled by platforms failure to tackle issues by themselves.
“The problems that tech companies have had with fake news and hate speech have given (governments) a good opportunity to justify the need for such laws,” she said.