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Singapore’s new act against false news in effect

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) was made official on Tuesday, 1 October.

Under this act, Singapore’s ministers can decide if they want to take actions on false claims made on the Internet. They can also direct its removal or have alterations done to it.

Ministers are also given the liberty to command technology companies to block accounts that are saying and influencing others with the so-called rumours.

Addressing concerns that the law could curb free speech, the government has assured people that the appeal process would be relatively fast and inexpensive for individuals.

The cost of initiating a court challenge was designed to allow fair redressal. It will cost $200 to file a court appeal against a statement made by a minister and will take about 9 days for the appeal to be heard in the High Court.

Aspects of the Act:

  1. The law applies to individuals and technology companies.
  1. It provides criminal sanctions to those who ignore orders or purposefully spread false information against the public interest.
  1. Falsehood is regarded as a statement of fact that is false or misleading. Opinions, criticisms, satire or parody do not fall under it.
  1. The law can only be applied based on two criterions: 

There must be a falsehood. The minister must state the basis for determining that something is false. 

It must also be in the public interest to act. The falsehood must be acted upon if it has implications on certain areas such as threats to the security of Singapore and its relations with other countries.

  1. Anyone who disagrees with the minister’s decision can have his appeal heard, around 9 days after initially challenging the minister.

The minister is given two working days to decide if they want to allow an appeal against his/her decision.

The court, on the other hand, has six working days to fix a hearing date after the person files an appeal and requests from a duty registrar to ask for an urgent hearing date.

  1. It will cost $200 to file a court appeal. There will be no charge for the first three days of court hearing.
  1. Some technology companies have been granted exemptions under Section 61 of the Act which will provide them time to execute the technical measures that are mandatory by the law.
  1. The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) has been officially designated as the authority figure which will work with the ministers to mete out the measures under the Act.

There have been negative reactions to the Act. Some fear that the law will be used to prevent free speech. During the parliamentary debate, it was pointed out that ministers can rush the appeal process by delaying his decision as the person must appeal to the minister before being able to appeal to the courts.

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam had promised that the appeal process will be fast and inexpensive for individuals.

Another point for concern was if it will be made known to people of why their content was determined to be false.

Mr Shanmugam addressed that concern by explaining that the ministers will have to provide explanations as to why the content put up is considered false news.

Technology companies may have to determine the identity of people who are attempting to put up any form of paid political content, such as advertisements which aim to have an impact on election results.

Companies might also need to reveal information of the paid political content to the public.

Mr Shanmugam said that the law has been designed to provide the Government with the tools for handling false information online that can be spread quickly within a short period, which could be detrimental to society stability.

False news actions by Thailand

Similar actions have been taken by countries around the region.

Thailand has proposed that tech companies set up centres in each of the 10 Southeast Asian countries to curb the flow of “fake news” and fake accounts.

Such centres would also work as a shortcut for governments to flag misinformation more easily to providers of over-the-top (OTT) services – any digital service done through the internet, including social media – so that they could comply by taking it down faster.

Companies have been asked if they could authorize each country to oversee such centres and in so doing co-operate directly with them.

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