A new bill in Singapore — which had its first reading Monday — would give the government sweeping new powers to crack down on so-called “fake news” and hit Facebook and other social media companies with big fines if they don’t comply with censorship orders.
Under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, it will be illegal to spread “false statements of fact” in Singapore, where that information is “prejudicial” to Singapore’s security, public safety, “public tranquility,” or to the “friendly relations of Singapore with other countries,” among numerous other topics.
Individuals found guilty of contravening the act can face fines of up to 50,000 SGD (over $36,000) and, or, up to five years in prison.
If the “fake news” 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 such as Facebook, if found guilty of spreading “fake news,” can face fines of up to 1 million SGD (around $735,000).
A “a false statement of fact” is to be defined by the government, which can then choose to issue a demand for a correction, removal of the offending post, or to pursue legal action against the poster or social network.
Press freedom has never been Singapore’s strong suit. 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.
The bill is supported by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and is almost certain to pass the ruling-party dominated Parliament.
As well as general free speech concerns, it will also raise serious questions for international tech and media companies which call Singapore home, including Facebook, Google and the BBC, all of which have their Asia headquarters in the city-state.
Facebook’s director of public policy for Asia-Pacific, Simon Milner, said that while the company in principle supported regulation on spreading online falsehoods, it had concerns at the law’s granting of “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 users.”