Google, Facebook and Twitter could face penalties for failing to remove ‘fake news’ in Singapore after a new law was proposed which would give the government more power to act against the spread of what it has termed as 'falsehoods'.
The new law, called The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, was tabled in parliament yesterday (1 April). It will allow the government to impose fines of up to SGD$1m ($737,790) on tech giants if they do not act swiftly to limit the spread of falsehoods by displaying corrections or removing them completely.
It will also force tech platforms to disable fake accounts operated by bots and block advertisements on fake news sites, thereby cutting off their revenue streams.
This means if a website puts out three false statements that each warranted either a correction or take-down order in a period of six months, a declaration regime can be issued against it. The site will not be shut down or punished with criminal sanctions, but its ability to profit from the published falsehoods will be cut off.
If a website has Google ads running on its site when the declaration regime is issued, Google must shut off the ads to prevent the site from receiving ad revenue in Singapore, according to reports on CNA.
The website owner must also post a notice on the site informing viewers of the declaration and will be prohibited from seeking financial assistance for the website.
Those that forward something on WhatsApp or share a post on Facebook would not be criminally liable and instead be subject to correction or removal orders, under other parts of the new law.
Government playing an active role
The new law puts power in the hands of ministers to order the correction or removal of online content judged to the be a falsehood, but lines have been drawn on what it can act on.
For example, statements of facts that are false or misleading include assertions that the government has declared war on its neighbours, when it has not done so or claims that the Monetary Authority of Singapore is bankrupt when it is not the case, according to The Straits Times.
However, statements of opinion like “the government is to blame for rising inequality” will not fall within the purview of the new law. In addition to opinion, criticisms, satire and parody also do not fall under the new law as well as government critics who do not make false claims.
The minister will also be aided by civil servants to decide whether something is a falsehood and to assess its impact on public interest.
The minister will then work with the competent authority within the Info-communications Media Development Authority of Singapore on the action to take against the falsehood if it deems an offense to have been committed.
Non-compliance with these orders could result in daily monetary penalties, fines and jail time.
For individuals, they will also need to make corrections when called upon or face a fine of up to $20,000 and jailed up to 12 months if they refuse to do so.
For individuals who knowingly spread falsehoods in order to undermine society can be fined up to $50,000 or jailed for up to five years or both if found guilty in court.
Those who use bots and click farms to amplify the spread of falsehoods can be fined up to $100,000 and jailed for up to 10 years.
Responding to the announcement, The Institute of Public Relations of Singapore said the new law was an important step in the country’s multi-pronged defense against professional operatives who seek to deceive society for profit, monetary or otherwise.
“Since falsehoods are a pressing problem that faces us all, however, it requires the collective action of organizations and individuals to stem its exponential rise. As the national body for communication professionals, the IRPS rally our 1,300+ base of member-practitioners to support this multi-pronged effort,” said Marcus Loh, the president of the IRPS.
“After all, our members are charged with the crafting, implementing and gatekeeping of various public and corporate messages. These guiding principles - such as the stemming of misleading information as well as the preservation of integrity in our public institutions and channels - are especially relevant in today’s data-driven marketplace where truths are increasingly being contested by falsehoods and misinformation."
The tech giants had previously stated that they do not believe that legislation by governments would stem the spread of fake news.
A Google spokesperson said: “Misinformation is a significant challenge and one that we are working hard to address. We will study the bill to determine our next steps and urge the government to allow for a full and transparent public consultation on the proposed legislation.”
Facebook said it was "concerned" with aspects of the law that "grant broad powers to the Singapore executive branch to compel us to remove content they deem to be false and proactively push a government notification to others".
"Giving people a place to express themselves freely and safely is important to us and we have a responsibility to handle any government request to remove alleged misinformation carefully and thoughtfully," added Facebook's vice president of Public Policy, Simon Milner.
It comes after Facebook's founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said government and regulators will have to play “a more active role” in shaping the internet, making decisions on harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability.