Uproar over Lion City move to target online 'fake news'

Top News | REUTERS 3 Apr 2019

The Singapore government's submission of wide-ranging fake news legislation to parliament is stoking fears that it can give authorities too much power.

The law would require social media sites to carry warnings on posts the government deems false and remove comments against "public interest."

The move came two days after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said governments should play a more active role in regulating the platform.

But Simon Milner, who works on Facebook's public policy in Asia, said the firm is "concerned with aspects of the law that grant broad powers to the executive branch to compel us to remove content they deem to be false and proactively push a government notification to users."

Jeff Paine, managing director of Asia Internet Coalition, said: "As the most far-reaching legislation of its kind to date, this level of overreach poses significant risks to freedom of expression and speech."

And Phil Robertson, deputy director Asia at Human Rights Watch, added: "This law will be a disaster."

Yet K Shanmugam, Singapore's law minister, said the legislation would not hinder free speech.

"This legislation deals with false statements of facts," he said. "It doesn't deal with opinions, it doesn't deal with viewpoints. You can have whatever viewpoints however reasonable or unreasonable."

Facebook, Twitter and Google have their Asia headquarters in Lion City, which is seen as an island of stability in often-turbulent Southeast Asia.

Singapore leaders say the republic is vulnerable to fake news because of its position as a financial hub, its mixed ethnic and religious population and widespread internet access.

It is ranked 151 among 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders, which puts it below the likes of Russia and Myanmar.

The bill proposes that the government get online platforms to publish warnings or "corrections" alongside posts carrying false information, without removing them. This would be the "primary response" to counter falsehoods online, a Law Ministry statement said.

Under the proposals before parliament, prison terms and hefty fines will be imposed if falsehoods are spread by "malicious actors" who "undermine society."

The ministry said it would cut off a site's "ability to profit" without shutting it down if it had published three falsehoods over the previous six months.

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