Thursday, 9 May 2019

Singapore Fake news law passed by Parliament on 8 May 2019

Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill was passed with 72 Members saying "yes", all nine Members from the opposition Workers' Party (WP) saying "no"
It is not a political tool but about shaping a society that keeps lies out, says Shanmugam
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 May 2019

After a marathon two-day debate that stretched late into last evening, Parliament passed a comprehensive piece of legislation to combat fake news.

The proposed law is not a political tool for the ruling party to wield power, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, but is about shaping the kind of society that Singapore should be.

Summing up the often fractious debate on the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, he painted a picture of a society in which lies are kept out and there are honest debates among people based on truth and honour.

"(Debates) should be based on a foundation of truth, foundation of honour, and foundation where we keep out the lies, that's what this is about. It's not about the Workers' Party or the PAP or today, it's about Singapore," he said responding to the 31 MPs who spoke during the debate on the draft law aimed at protecting society from fake news that harms public interest.

At around 10.20pm, the Bill was passed with 72 MPs saying "yes", nine Workers' Party (WP) MPs saying "no", and three Nominated MPs abstaining.

WP chief Pritam Singh, whose party had strenuously objected to the new law for giving ministers too much powers, had called for a division in which each MP's vote is recorded. The opposition party wanted the courts, instead of the ministers, to be the arbiters of falsehoods, and accused the Government of creating a self-serving law that can be abused to quash critics.

Rebuttals came from many of the People's Action Party (PAP) MPs as well as Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung and Mr Shanmugam, who stressed that a minister's decision under the new law is subject to court appeal and judicial review.

The new law is designed to give the Government the tools to deal with falsehoods on the Internet that can go viral in a matter of minutes and cause untold harm, said Mr Shanmugam, who spent much of his speech addressing WP MPs' claims.

There was no way to guarantee that the courts would be able to respond within hours each time a falsehood needed to be dealt with, he added. He also stressed that the Bill narrows the scope of the Government's powers, instead of broadening them.

"There is no profit of any sort, including political profit, in trying to allow these lies to proliferate and damage our infrastructure of fact. It will damage our institutions and, frankly, no mainstream political party will benefit from it.

"It will damage any party that wants to consider itself mainstream and credible. You've seen what happens in the US, you've seen what happened in the UK, the centre gets hollowed out, it's the extremes that benefit," he said.

MPs had asked for clarifications on technical aspects such as how the law defines falsehoods and public interest, and also raised practical concerns like whether people who inadvertently forward fake news will run afoul of the law.

Mr Shanmugam stressed that orders to put up corrections or remove content would mostly be directed at technology companies.

The man in the street who does not purposely manufacture falsehoods to undermine society need not fear, he added.

During the debate yesterday, Mr Ong addressed the concerns of academics, some of whom had sent him a letter last month about their fears that academic work would be caught under the law.

He said their main concern was that the law would be abused to stifle political discourse "because not all researchers are just researchers, they may also be activists". He assured them that criticism based on facts and not falsehoods would not come under the new law.

Mr Iswaran, meanwhile, spoke about how the Government was fighting the fake news scourge from other fronts, such as working with technology companies on a code of practice that will prevent their platforms from being misused to ramping up media literacy through education.

"Ultimately, our first and most important line of defence against online falsehoods is a well-informed and discerning citizenry, equipped with the tools to combat online falsehoods," he said.

Impossible for courts to decide quickly on what is a falsehood, says Shanmugam
Shanmugam lays out why ministers are needed in order to act in 'a matter of hours'
By Rachel Au-Yong, Housing Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 May 2019

It is impossible to guarantee that the courts can decide in "a matter of hours" whether something is a falsehood and how to tackle it, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said in Parliament yesterday.

Replying to Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh, Mr Shanmugam referred to one of the principles set out by a parliamentary Select Committee last year, which stated that the measures need to be taken in a matter of hours to achieve the aim of stopping falsehoods from going viral.

On Tuesday, Mr Singh had argued that since the courts could grant protection orders to individuals and companies swiftly under the new Protection from Harassment Act (Poha), they could similarly issue orders just as quickly for fake news.

But Mr Shanmugam, in a 10-minute back-and-forth exchange with Mr Singh, said the opposition party's proposal is not feasible.

Firstly, it is hard to determine if those applying to take down or correct a possible falsehood can quickly get an audience with a judge, the minister pointed out.

"Do you know how long it takes to get a duty judge?... Sometimes you can go to his house and see him but (can the action be taken) in a matter of hours? What if he is engaged in something else? He can only give you the time that he can," he said in rebutting Mr Singh, a lawyer.

Another reason he gave is the parties whose possible falsehoods are being corrected or removed may contest the judge's decision. "Due process means you must allow them to argue. That means you must set a hearing date. How long do you think that will take?"

All nine WP MPs who spoke had asked for the courts - not ministers - to be the initial decision-makers on what falsehoods are. In opposing the fake news legislation, they cited possible abuses and the curtailment of freedom of speech. Their arguments were met with fierce rebuttals from office-holders as well as People's Action Party backbenchers.

In his closing speech, Mr Shanmugam also rejected Mr Singh and Mr Low Thia Khiang's (Aljunied GRC) point that few people would go to court to challenge a minister's decision on falsehoods. The minister said orders are likely to be made against tech companies, which can easily challenge decisions.

He also said the WP's point was a logical fallacy: "People don't want to go to court, but what you are proposing is to go to court in every case, which means the Government has to sue every single time... How does that make sense?"

The minister added that the WP MPs had failed to address the fact that the Bill narrowed the scope of powers, by requiring the Government to prove two bars: that something is a falsehood and correcting or taking it down is in the public interest.

Earlier, Mr Cedric Foo (Pioneer) asked Mr Singh if he thought the courts would be able to make decisions about falsehoods much quicker than the executive branch, "which is supported by 16 ministries, 135,000 officers with years of experience in different domains".

Mr Singh reiterated his belief that a swift response from the courts is possible, as seen in the new Poha.

Mr Foo noted: "(The fake news law) is about public interest, about riots... about racial disharmony. These are huge public interest matters that have to be dealt with much faster than Poha cases because those are of an individual's interest.

"They are important, but not as urgent as in cases under Pofma."

Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) said if a minister issued a directive to further his political aims, it would not fulfil the public interest requirement.

In his speech, Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran said he did not see how the WP could "jump to the conclusion that ministers are judge and jury".

The courts, not the ministers, decide on the penalties if propagators of falsehoods are taken to task, he pointed out.

As for the WP's concerns that the new law would stop free speech, he said: "The right to comment, and the right to free speech continues in the course of this process until and unless it is sub judice.

"In other words, the individual and other interested parties can continue to put up online commentaries to say that 'I am the subject of Pofma action'."

He added: "Given the safeguards in the due process... I don't see how this can be seen as ministers having excessive powers."

Mr Iswaran also took issue with Mr Png Eng Huat's (Hougang) concern that the laws would give an incumbent party the power to remove any damaging statement made against it.

Mr Png had said: "The nuclear option, if abused, will actually allow the minister to influence the outcome of an election... Who can vouch that an incumbent party, when faced with multiple battles on all fronts, will not resort to desperate measures to avoid losing power in a critical election?"

Mr Iswaran responded: "I don't know whether he has read Section 52 of the Act (which) provides for alternative authorities during the election period."

In this case, he pointed out, it would be the permanent secretary or an equivalent senior official who would exercise the authority during an election period.

WP MPs vote against Bill, criticising powers given to ministers
By Royston Sim, Deputy Political Editor, The Straits Times, 9 May 2019

All nine Workers' Party (WP) MPs yesterday voted against a Bill that they have roundly criticised for granting Cabinet ministers too much power in deciding on falsehoods that are against the public interest.

They contended that the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill will have a chilling effect on free speech, as the Government could wield it to stifle criticism and protect its interests.

The opposition MPs also made the case for their counter-proposal, which is to have the courts act as the initial decision maker on what is false instead of vesting that power in Cabinet ministers, as provided for in the proposed law which was passed last night.

Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) - the first WP MP to speak yesterday - said the Bill contains elements that can lead to abuse of power, which in turn will undermine social cohesion. He and other WP MPs took issue with clauses, such as what constitutes "in the public interest".

Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) Dennis Tan said he found the definitions to be too general, and its scope not clearly spelt out.

One clause states it is in the public interest for a minister to act against a piece of falsehood to prevent a diminution of public confidence in the performance of any duty or function of the Government.

Mr Tan noted that the diminution of confidence in the Government is "not found in fake news legislation elsewhere in the world".

He expressed concern that extending the definition of public interest to include not diminishing public confidence in the Government may deter bona fide criticism and well-meaning intentions to expose government failings.

No government will always be correct, he said, adding: "It is for the Government, by its own efforts, to earn and maintain public confidence in itself, and any use of law to deter the diminution of public confidence will run counter to that."

WP chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) said judicial oversight is "severely limited" under the new law.

She noted that the burden of proof falls on the individual whom the Government deemed to have made a false statement, who has to show the statement was true, and this is a tall order, given the "asymmetry of information" between the authorities and the public.

Under the new law, an individual who wants to challenge a minister's decision on a falsehood can first appeal to the minister, followed by the High Court if that initial appeal is rejected. There is also an option for judicial review.

Ms Lim said the new law does not provide for the High Court to inquire into the merits of the minister's decision and whether it was indeed in the public interest for the minister to order a correction or take-down of a false statement, among other things.

On the option of judicial review, she said it is not easy for an individual to mount a challenge and win.

Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang) said the new law would be especially dangerous during an election, as it would allow an incumbent who is seeking re-election the "sole power to remove any damaging statement made against the party and its leaders, in the name of public interest".

Describing this as the "nuclear option", he said it would allow any minister to influence elections, one of the very things the new law is supposed to guard against.

WP chief Pritam Singh and NCMP Leon Perera also defended their proposal for the courts to decide on falsehoods in the first instance.

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) had described it as a "complete abuse of judicial process" and "completely unworkable".

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam asked Mr Singh if he could guarantee that the courts would always be able to act on falsehoods "in a matter of hours", a timeframe set out in a Select Committee report on online falsehoods.

The minister had highlighted the difficulty of ensuring a duty judge is always available to respond to such cases, among other things.

Mr Singh had pointed to the debate on the Protection from Harassment (Amendment) Bill, which provides for a new court to be set up as well as measures to ensure swifter help for victims, among other things. These, he said, suggest that there is some scope for the courts to deal with the urgent issue of falsehoods in a speedy fashion.

Mr Perera and Ms Lim both said they believe the courts would be able to respond to falsehoods quickly enough if processes to report such cases are streamlined and the institution is properly resourced.

WP NCMP Daniel Goh urged the Government to work on good communication and public engagement, instead of using the law to force corrections on people.

This, he said, would have the opposite effect and "create an easy and speedy way out from the hard work they should be doing instead".

"I don't understand why the Government would want to protect their ministers from the test of public reason," he added.

Addressing Mr Shanmugam's argument that ministers can be voted out during elections if they abused the law, Dr Goh said: "It is irresponsible political brinkmanship. It is saying to the citizens, 'If you are not happy with my decision, I dare you to vote me out.'"

On calls for a Freedom of Information Act, Mr Singh said it cannot be seen as a silver bullet, but it is one part of citizen engagement that will help build trust and raise the standard of public conversation.

Why list of public interest grounds is non-exhaustive
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 9 May 2019

There are "very practical" reasons for keeping the list of public interest grounds in the proposed fake news law non-exhaustive, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.

"If we provide a closed list, then people will know precisely what the parameters are and can work around them," he said in his speech summing up the discussion of the Bill in Parliament.

He also said the Bill articulates the grounds of public interest with greater specificity and clarity than in earlier laws.

His response came after some MPs had suggested that there was a lack of clarity in the proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, which was passed yesterday.

The Bill lists several definitions of public interest, including Singapore's security; to protect public health, public finances, public safety or public tranquillity; and Singapore's friendly relations with other countries.

Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan said he found them to be too general and the precise scope is not clearly spelt out.

"For example, in the context of falsehoods, what does it mean by 'to protect public health or public finances' or 'to secure public safety or public tranquillity'? What acts or words will definitively trigger each of these definitions?" he asked.

He also raised the concern about the list of definitions being non-exhaustive.

"I am concerned that in future, what else may be read by a minister as a further definition or example of 'in the public interest'," he added.

Mr Tan also said he was concerned with the extension of the definition of public interest to include not diminishing public confidence in the Government. This may deter bona fide criticism to expose government failings, he added.

Mr Shanmugam asked what was meant by bona fide criticism when falsehoods are put out through means such as bots, trolls and fake accounts.

He said: "As a lawyer, Mr Tan will understand what is meant by bona fide criticism. Certainly, this will not be considered by any court, or any reasonable person, as bona fide criticism."

Mr Darryl David (Ang Mo Kio GRC) asked for clarity on what would be considered a diminution of public interest in institutions.

Mr Shanmugam gave a few examples of incidents that have happened in other countries.

There was a forged letter from Sweden to Ukraine, asking Sweden to ensure the dismissal of a court case concerning Ukrainian war crimes, which was to make people believe that their governments were not above interfering in justice, he said.

In another case, there was a false claim that Swedish police had said there were 50 "no-go" areas in Sweden filled with illegal immigrants, and these areas were too dangerous for even the police to enter.

"If you were to make a comment that Swedish police do not have things under control, or Singapore police do not have things under control, you are welcome to say that, that won't be covered by the Bill.

"But if you say, by specific reference, that these are no-go areas, then that's either true or it's not true," said Mr Shanmugam.

Workers' Party MPs reusing stock phrases: Shanmugam
By Charmaine Ng, The Straits Times, 9 May 2019

In the debate over the proposed fake news law, MPs from the opposition Workers' Party (WP) have reused stock phrases that were extreme and unconnected with reality, and were also used in 2016 during the debate of a new contempt of court law, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.

He made this point while making reference to comments from WP's Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera that the proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) would have a chilling effect on freedom of speech to the extent of putting it into an "industrial freezer".

"It's not free speech which will go into deep freeze," said Mr Shanmugam. "It strikes me that some stock phrases are kept in deep freeze by Mr Perera and his colleagues, and brought out of the chiller once in a while, and dutifully repeated."

For instance, he cited comments from then WP chief Low Thia Khiang in 2016 in comparing elements of the proposed Administration of Justice (Protection) Act (AOJPA) to the Internal Security Act (ISA).

At the time, Mr Low said oral communication would be covered under the Bill, and this would apply to people talking at coffee shops.

"So after all that talk of chill and fear, I can tell you coffee shops in Yishun don't even think of the AOJPA, and I'm sure it's the same in Hougang and Aljunied, and everywhere else in Singapore," said Mr Shanmugam yesterday, who is an MP for Nee Soon GRC.

He also cited remarks made during the 2016 debate by the other WP MPs from Aljunied GRC and the Hougang single ward.

For instance, Mr Shanmugam referred to remarks made by WP chairman Sylvia Lim that the AOJPA would "leave Singaporeans at the mercy of administrative discretion" and bring Singapore "one step closer to being a police state", and asked the House yesterday if that has been the case.

In response, Mr Low said he stood by what he had said in 2016, while Ms Lim said she would leave the public to judge what was said in that debate.

Making a comparison between Pofma and the ISA, Mr Low said the two are similar as the executive branch has the power to take action "without having to go to court".

Referencing a Chinese idiom, xian zhan hou zou, which loosely means to take action first and explain later, Mr Low added that an individual would have to abide by a minister's directive first under Pofma before he can appeal against the decision.

Also, he reiterated that Pofma could have an effect on public discussions as it inherently deals with the freedom of expression, but what constitutes a fact and an opinion are not clearly defined and may be up to interpretation.


Fake news law does not stifle academic research; scholars' real concern is about political discourse, says Ong Ye Kung
Govt will engage in public debate over opinion-based studies backed by empirical data, says Education Minister
By Rachel Au-Yong, Housing Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 May 2019

The real concern among some academics over the fake news law is the potential impact on political discourse in Singapore, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, as he explained why it is impossible for academic research to run afoul of the proposed legislation.

Speaking at the debate on the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (Pofma) in Parliament yesterday, Mr Ong assured the House that the Government will not apply the laws to academic research.

He was responding to a letter he received last month from 124 academics, of whom slightly more than half were foreigners, which raised concerns that the Bill could lead to self-censorship.

The minister said the Government will stay true to science and empirical evidence, and engage in vigorous public debate over opinion-based research. "Under both scenarios, Pofma does not apply in such a discourse," he said.

The only way the law would be invoked is if the research is based on false observations or data, preventing public discourse from taking place properly. "In which case, such work cannot pass the professional standards of any decent university or research institute," he said.

But Mr Ong pointed out the real concern of academics is that the law will be used to stifle political discourse in Singapore, noting that "not all researchers are just researchers, they may also be activists".

While emphasising that research cannot be conflated with activism, Mr Ong said no activist will be caught by the law if he criticises the Government.

"The law treats all activists equally - whether you are an academic or a man or woman on the street," he said. "It does not target academics. You are as free as an ordinary citizen to comment on current affairs and critique the Government."

Conversely, any academic - activist or not - who uses online platforms to spread falsehoods that harm society will not be spared under the law, he added.

He noted that public discourse is becoming more rigorous, and it is in this area where the views of academics would be regarded differently. They could say, for example, that Singapore's growth model or meritocratic system has failed, and the laws will not apply because these are opinions.

"But in the interest of open debate and given your stature in society and position in a publicly-funded university, please expect government agencies - if we do not agree with you - to present the facts, our arguments and to convince the public otherwise."

"If that has a chilling effect, please chill," he added to laughter from the House.

He added that the same or even higher expectations apply to him and his Cabinet colleagues, and whenever one of them puts out a view in public, those who disagree with them will speak up and the ministers would have to re-evaluate their position.

He cited some events that shape a nation, like the Holocaust in Germany and communist threats Singapore faced after independence. Researchers may continue to interpret these events, but they cannot deny they happened, he said.

"Only by holding onto certain truths are we able to continue to collectively identify the issues that are important to us... and decide the way forward, without the lies and manipulations," said the minister, whose speech ended in applause from the House.

More careful now on what is disagreement or falsehood: Ong Ye Kung
By Rachel Au-Yong, Housing Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 May 2019

Academics do accept the need for the Government to rebut robustly research that it does not agree with, whether from academics or activists, but there is a trend of ministries using language in their rebuttals that implies falsehoods, said Nominated MP Walter Theseira.

An economist at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, Dr Theseira said a closer look at details of a case would show it to be merely a dispute about the facts or conclusion.

He said he hoped Education Minister Ong Ye Kung had "some views on maybe asking his colleagues or ministries to tighten up a bit in their language (so) that people don't inadvertently think things are false when they are actually not". He was speaking during the debate on the proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) yesterday.

In response, Mr Ong said one value of the debate on the proposed law in Parliament was that "we are now a lot more careful what is a disagreement, what is a falsehood".

"And I think this law crystallised it and we should be more disciplined in future," he added.

Earlier, Mr Ong said the Bill would not apply to academic research, as long as it was not based on false data. But scholars must be prepared that government agencies will put out arguments to convince the public if they do not agree with the research, he added.

In all, four MPs, including three academics, responded to Mr Ong.

Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh raised a case in 2003 when two Nanyang Technological University dons said that for the previous five years, three out of four new jobs in Singapore were taken up by foreigners. Then-Manpower Minister Ng Eng Hen said their research was "way off the mark" and it was irresponsible to put such wrong findings out - a rebuke Dr Goh said would be equivalent to a correction under the new laws.

Mr Ong did not agree that Dr Ng's disagreement with the dons would be considered a correction order under the proposed Pofma: "That is political discourse. It cannot be that just because it's a research piece we all have to shut up."

Dr Goh, a sociologist from the National University of Singapore, also asked if other ministers would first consult the Education Minister, who oversees academic research, for verification first.

Mr Ong replied: "I think it should be, based on how the law is written today; but based on the Workers' Party's suggestion, I'm afraid it will go to the courts." He was referring to the opposition party's stand that the courts, not the ministers, should be the initial decision-maker on what are falsehoods.

Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) asked the minister to clarify if the laws would apply to researchers whose conclusion is based on incomplete data, as was the case in 2003. Mr Ong said the data, while incomplete, was not fabricated or falsified. As for the NTU dons' conclusion, that was their opinion, he said.

"So long as researchers abide by research discipline, I do not see how they can be caught by Pofma unless they fabricate the data," he added.

Parliament rejects amendment to Bill proposed by 3 NMPs
By Rachel Au-Yong, Housing Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 May 2019

An amendment to the fake news Bill by three Nominated MPs failed to get the nod from MPs yesterday.

The trio - Ms Anthea Ong, Ms Irene Quay and Associate Professor Walter Theseira - had proposed changes to limit the powers given to ministers under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill.

These included a clause that sets out key principles under which powers can be used.

But as the eight clauses were read out in Parliament, People's Action Party MPs rejected each one with a chorus of "nos", while Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh rose to say that his party would abstain from the vote.

On Tuesday, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam had given a point-by-point rebuttal to the NMPs' suggestions. He noted that they agreed with the principle of the Bill, though they might diverge from the Government in how the laws should be carried out.

He added that some of the changes they called for will be set out in subsidiary legislation.

But in her speech yesterday, Ms Ong pointed out one possible shortcoming of subsidiary legislation is that it could be amended later without coming before the House.

Although their amendments were not accepted by Parliament, Dr Theseira told The Straits Times last night that he had no regrets despite the results.

"It isn't about winning or losing, but about bringing concerns to Parliament and making sure they are properly debated. I think the Government gave a good and detailed set of assurances in the key areas we were concerned about," he said.

Hard to tell fact from opinion at times, says NMP Walter Theseira
Walter Theseira urges caution; Law Minister says views expressed based on accurate facts not covered by Bill
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 9 May 2019

Data given by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) in 2017 was cited yesterday to debate the distinction between fact and opinion.

The MSF data showed a sharp rise in people receiving ComCare aid between 2012 and 2015, and led to an online comment that this was "the worst poverty result ever officially reported in Singapore".

MSF responded that this was "not true", explaining that the growth in ComCare recipients reflects more generous social welfare policies.

Nominated MP Walter Theseira viewed this as a difference of opinion based on the same facts and not a falsehood. Speaking during the debate on the fake news legislation, he urged caution in applying its powers.

The new law gives ministers powers to order an individual to remove content that is deemed false or run a correction alongside it. It applies to statements of facts, and does not cover criticism, opinions, satire and parody.

Dr Theseira, a transport economist from the Singapore University of Social Sciences, said that while the ministry must set the record straight, differences in opinion may arise because the public may have only partial information - as in the case of the ComCare aid.

"We should not label such differences in interpretation as falsehoods, especially if the ministry has not released all the relevant information," he added.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, in his speech summing up the debate, said he has not seen these cases cited by Dr Theseira that were supposedly interpretations based on facts, rather than facts themselves.

But he said that if the facts are accurate, and the views are expressed based on those facts, they would not be covered by the Bill. He added that public interest has to be established, and "it doesn't mean that each time the Government responds... automatically, the standard for public interest as set out in the Bill would have been invoked".

Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan noted that under the Bill, a statement is false if it is false or misleading, whether wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears.

He said the definition of "misleading" might be too wide.

Mr Shanmugam said having such wording reflects existing jurisprudence, and statements can be false by reason of having misled through omission.

He added that the test for distinguishing between "comment" and "fact" is an objective one, and the courts are equipped to apply the legal test and have regularly done so.

New codes of practice require tech firms to have systems to verify fake accounts, downplay online falsehoods: S. Iswaran
Tackling online falsehoods upstream is necessary, he says
By Adrian Lim, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 May 2019

Technology companies in Singapore will be required to abide by codes of practice in a proposed fake news law to prevent their platforms from being used to spread falsehoods.

The codes have three aims: To prevent and counter the misuse of online accounts by malicious actors who can hide behind them by being anonymous; to enhance the transparency of political advertising; and to downplay online falsehoods, said Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran in Parliament yesterday.

Apart from the draft law's measures such as corrections and take-down orders, tackling issues of online falsehoods upstream is necessary to help ensure a safer online environment, he added when speaking at the debate on the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill.

The Bill was passed in Parliament after two days of debate.

In his 30-minute speech, Mr Iswaran touched on the non-legislative measures needed to combat online falsehoods, like initiatives to build up media literacy, as well as the need for a "calibrated set of measures" to deal with the swift spread of online falsehoods.

"The more we can work with technology companies on such upstream systems and processes, the less we will need to issue corrections or take-down directions downstream," he told the House.

Under the draft law's codes of practice, Internet intermediaries like social media platforms have to use reasonable verification measures to prevent fake accounts or bots from being created or used for malicious activities, he said.

The tech firms also have to ensure that political advertisements disclose who is the source. "This encompasses election advertising and advertisements on issues of public interest or controversy in the Singapore context, including those pertaining to race or religion," he added.

Mr Iswaran also said that requiring Internet intermediaries to de-prioritise online fake news will ensure credible content is given prominence and falsehoods are prevented from gaining prominence.

He noted that the scope of these codes takes reference from international norms, including the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation, as well as consultations with companies and world experts.

To implement the proposed measures, a Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) Office is being planned.

It will be set up in the Infocomm Media Development Authority and work with the tech companies on the codes of practice.

Mr Iswaran said the implementation of the codes will be "targeted and graduated", and the focus is on ensuring the tech companies have adequate systems and processes in place.

Where breaches occur, the Pofma Office will consider factors such as the seriousness of the breach, whether it reflects a systemic deficiency and if the companies' efforts to remedy the problems are adequate.

Noting that tech companies are an important part of Singapore's business ecosystem and digital economy, he said the Pofma Office will work with the firms to develop company-specific annexes to the codes.

"These annexes will clarify how each (Internet) intermediary will operationalise the broad outcomes, principles and objectives in the codes, taking into account the unique features of each intermediary's platform, its existing systems and measures to combat disinformation, technical capabilities as well as effectiveness," he said.

Only one minister can block access, funding to errant platforms
By Adrian Lim, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 May 2019

Only the communications and information minister will have the power to block access to or order a stop on funding for errant online platforms.

This was made clear by Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran yesterday in Parliament. He said such decisions "have broader implications, beyond individual ministries, for Internet users, the industry and the digital infrastructure".

There are also plans to establish a new unit under the Infocomm Media Development Authority, to help ensure that the new law against fake news is applied consistently.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) Office allows ministers to issue directions such as corrections on online falsehoods, or require the offending post to be taken down.

The new unit, said Mr Iswaran, will "support the portfolio ministers with technical advice on the precedents, the types of levers available, their feasibility and effectiveness".

Addressing questions from MPs, he said that there were three main considerations behind giving ministers the power to act against online falsehoods.

First is the need for swift action, given the potential of falsehoods to go viral and cause harm.

The second consideration was the need for deep domain knowledge to properly and quickly assess if a piece of information is fake, and whether it is in the public interest to take action.

"This is important especially as the online falsehood could occur in domains as diverse as healthcare, finance or security," Mr Iswaran explained to the House.

"And if in each of these cases we expect one singular authority to render a judgment in a timely manner, and take expeditious action, I think that is a very tall order."

He said that a minister, supported by his ministry's officials and resources, would have the requisite domain expertise to make such an assessment and act quickly to stem any potential harm arising from an online falsehood.

By vesting these powers in the portfolio ministers, coupled with the recourse to the courts, it also assures that there is accountability.

Aggrieved parties can appeal to the courts if they do not agree with a particular minister's action. That minister is also answerable to Parliament, Mr Iswaran added.

By assigning the powers to correct or take down online falsehoods to portfolio ministers, the law "appropriately and correctly locates authority with accountability, supported by the requisite knowledge and expertise to make swift decisions", he said.

"This is essential when you are dealing with the virality of online falsehoods."

Well-informed citizenry first line of defence against online falsehoods
By Adrian Lim, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 May 2019

Legislation is necessary but by no means sufficient in the fight against online falsehoods.

Ultimately, the first and most important line of defence is a well-informed and discerning citizenry, equipped with the tools to combat online falsehoods, said Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran yesterday. To achieve this, the Government will continue to support ground-up efforts and invest in resources to build up digital literacy, he added, during the debate on the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill.

Mr Iswaran said the Government agrees with the importance of having fact-checking initiatives in society, one of the recommendations of a Select Committee set up to study ways to fight online falsehoods.

The parliamentary committee, which published its report in September last year, recommended that different media organisations and partners from other industries establish a coalition to debunk falsehoods swiftly and credibly, as well as provide support to such fact-checking initiatives.

But Mr Iswaran said such initiatives should go beyond fact-checking, to "ensure that the discourse is authentic and responsible, and citizens are well informed of the principles of engagement".

"Over time, through the collaborative efforts of different parties and agencies, we envisage a tighter nexus between the different entities, including academia and journalists in Singapore, so that high-quality information can reach the general public, to engender greater understanding of current affairs and complex issues," he added.

"These efforts will also be aligned with the Government's commitment to support the growth of a robust and vibrant information ecosystem, with a variety of entities contributing to the overall effort."

Responding to Ms Joan Pereira (Tanjong Pagar GRC) and Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC), who had raised the need for media literacy for the young and the elderly, Mr Iswaran gave some examples of what some government agencies are doing.

The National Library Board and the Education and Defence ministries, for instance, provide information literacy resources to adults, students and seniors.

The Media Literacy Council runs the Better Internet Campaign and gives seed funding to youth-led initiatives to address digital literacy and cyber safety and security, Mr Iswaran said.

"Over time and taken together, these measures will empower citizens to make informed decisions on their consumption of information, and be more discerning on multifaceted issues, thereby helping to grow an informed citizenry."

Fake news law needed to retain trust in key institutions: Shanmugam
Bill helps tackle part of problem threatening foundations of democracy globally, he says
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 May 2019

An erosion of trust in governments and institutions has threatened the very foundations of democracy worldwide.

Growing inequality, broken political systems, a media aligned with partisan politics, and the spread of fake news on new media have deepened this crisis.

Describing this as a fundamental problem in many countries, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday urged members of the House to pay heed to this bigger picture, to understand why Singapore needs fake news laws.

"It will be very unwise for us to watch and do nothing because it can sweep us over very quickly. I believe we are at one of those crucial turning points in history," he said as he presented the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill for debate.

"This Bill is an attempt to deal with one part of the problem. The serious problems arising from falsehoods spread through new media. And to try and help support the infrastructure of fact and promote honest speech in public discourse. It is an important part - even as we work on other aspects."

The minister spent much of his two-hour-long speech setting out the rationale for the proposed law, which has come under fire from some segments for giving ministers powers to decide first what is falsehood and how to tackle it.

Under the Bill, a minister decides whether to act against a piece of falsehood on the Internet, and can order that it be taken down or ask for corrections to be put up alongside it.

The Workers' Party yesterday joined in the chorus of objection, with party chief Pritam Singh and former chief Low Thia Khiang opposing what they said were the sweeping powers that the law will give ministers. Mr Low, who spoke near the end of the day, said the Bill was "more like the actions of a dictatorial government that (will) resort to any means to hold on to absolute power".

Earlier, in his speech, Mr Shanmugam had sought to dispel such misconceptions, saying that the Government's powers under existing legislation, such as the Broadcasting Act and Telecommunications Act, are wider than those proposed under the Bill.

"Some of the discussion by those opposed to this Bill... seems to be without an understanding of the existing position," he said, adding that the scope of the Bill was narrower.

But a new law that is targeted at the problem of fake news and able to deal with its viral nature is preferable, he added.

Technical reasons aside, he said, the Bill is meant to protect Singapore from the destructive forces that have eroded trust in governments and important public institutions in many countries, including the United States and Britain.

The crisis of trust has in turn opened the doors to the dangerous politics of populism in many countries, making it harder for governments to fix problems, he added as he set out the context in which the Bill was proposed.

While Singapore is doing well compared with other countries, with trust in the Government and the media still relatively high, he added, "we cannot ignore the global risk, and we are likely to be impacted by the same forces".

Mr Shanmugam yesterday also assured MPs that it would not be difficult for individuals to challenge a minister's decision under the draft law.

Giving an overview of the appeals process, he said individuals can have their appeals heard in court in as little as nine days, and no court fees will be charged for the first three days of the hearing.

The Bill, more than a year in the making since public consultation started in January last year, is one of the most scrutinised pieces of legislation in recent years.

More than 30 Members of Parliament will speak about it over two days of debate, which will end today.

Appeal process under fake news law will be simple, fast: Shanmugam
Expedited appeal for fake news law, with courts to hear case as early as 9 days after challenge
He also says costs will be kept low, with no court fees charged for first three days
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 May 2019

It could take as short a time as nine days for the High Court to hear a case after an individual challenges a minister's decision under the proposed fake news law.

In addition, no court fees will be charged for the first three days.

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam disclosed these details yesterday as he gave an overview of the process of appeal under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill.

In the face of criticism that it could be too onerous for individuals to seek redress, he spoke about how it would be made "fast" and "simple", with costs "kept very low".

Under the Bill, a minister can order an individual to remove content that is deemed false or run a correction alongside it, among other things.

An individual who does not agree will first have to comply, and can then appeal against the order.

To do so, he will have to first apply to the minister to cancel the order, and if this is unsuccessful, file an appeal in court.

Critics have said this could allow ministers to delay the appeals process indefinitely.

Mr Shanmugam set out the timelines of the various stages, including the number of working days each party can take to respond.

He said the practice of having ministers decide on applications by aggrieved persons as a first step is consistent with the "usual position of exhausting administrative remedies before resorting to a judicial remedy".

A minister must decide within two days of receiving an application, after which an individual has up to 14 days to file his appeal in court.

The court documents must then be served on the minister no later than the next day, and he will have up to three days to file his reply in court. The High Court will have to hear the case no later than six days after receiving the appeal application.

Sketching out the process yesterday, Mr Shanmugam said the court will continue to have a general discretion to extend timelines, for instance, when an aggrieved person needs more time. He added that the time it takes to decide on a case is a matter for the courts.

Besides making the appeal process fast, the process will also be made simpler, with standard forms used for filing the application to the minister and filing the appeal in court. The forms must be sent to designated e-mail addresses, which will be provided under the law.

Mr Shanmugam said this will allow people to present their own arguments instead of hiring lawyers.

Critics had raised concerns that going to court would be a costly affair. Mr Shanmugam reiterated that costs would be kept "very low", with no court fees for three days of a hearing, although further days will be charged at the usual rate.

But the courts will have the power to waive fees, he added, while warning that people should not abuse the process.

Details of the process will be spelt out in the subsidiary legislation of the law, which is where procedural and administrative details are set out. Typically, laws passed do not come into effect until after the subsidiary legislation is in place.

Online falsehoods weaponised to destroy trust: Shanmugam
New media heavily exploited to weaken trust in public discourse, institutions and democracy
By Rachel Au-Yong, Housing Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 May 2019

Trust in public institutions, like the Government or the media, is essential in creating an environment to share facts, with a belief in the authenticity of the sources, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said in Parliament yesterday.

But "new media has been heavily exploited to batter this infrastructure of fact", which in turn weakens trust in public discourse, institutions and democracy itself, he said at the start of the debate on the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill.

He expounded on three sources of online falsehoods: foreign countries using information warfare; those who seek commercial profit; and deliberate actors who send out falsehoods for political ends or to harm other groups.

Falsehoods from such groups "have been weaponised, to attack the infrastructure of fact, destroy trust and attack societies", he said.

First, the rules of war have changed, with some foreign countries using non-military measures like information operations to "harness the protest potential of the population", Mr Shanmugam said.

Such operations mean stoking opposition in a target country, to create a permanently operating front, he said, adding that such non-military measures can exceed the power of force and weapons.

"Even though military or overt violent measures are not being used, the target states' national security and sovereignty are threatened and violated," he said.

"The lines between war and peace have now been blurred."

Mr Shanmugam said experts who spoke to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods last year had noted that Singapore's military superiority in the region means it would be futile to start a war here.

"Militarily weaker countries will then focus on other means to weaken Singapore, sap our will from inside, create deep internal divisions to keep us in a permanent state of internal dissension," he said, adding that there have been attempts to weaken support for the Singapore Armed Forces or shift Singapore's foreign policy.

Another reason some spread falsehoods through new media is for profit, said Mr Shanmugam.

"Digital advertising models have turned websites into virtual real estate," he said. "With every click, digital ad revenue is earned."

Such a business model has created an "attention economy", with content that stokes fear and anger being good for attracting attention.

These falsehoods not only earn people large sums of money, but also have political impact, he said.

He cited the example of American Paul Horner, who set up at least 20 fake news websites with deceptive website addresses to trick readers into thinking they were reading from mainstream sources.

He made at least US$10,000 (S$13,600) a month from Google AdSense, said the minister.

One false article which said people were paid to protest against then US presidential candidate Donald Trump was retweeted by his campaign.

Other times, both local and foreign civilians spread falsehoods for political reasons or out of personal prejudices, affecting their own as well as other countries, said Mr Shanmugam.

He gave the example of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, where immigration was a hot topic and many false claims and fake stories were concocted.

One of them was about how there were some areas where syariah law dominates and non-Muslims cannot enter.

While outlandish, 32 per cent in a survey of 10,000 people last year believed the falsehood about "no go" areas to be true.

It also created a permissive environment for hate, with a 41 per cent spike in hate crimes after the referendum, said Mr Shanmugam.

Why independent council to review Govt's actions is not necessary
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 8 May 2019

A proposal by three Nominated MPs to have an independent council review the Government's actions in tackling online falsehoods could lead to unnecessary bureaucratic bloat, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam in Parliament yesterday.

All of the functions of such a council can be achieved under the current structure of the executive and Parliament, and it is preferable for Parliament to hold the executive directly accountable, he said.

"Parliament is a representative body, it's meant to work in a democracy this way, where MPs hold the ministers accountable, and check and ask questions. You don't keep creating bodies. And then who checks on (these bodies)?" he said.

The minister gave this response during the second reading of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, aimed at protecting society from the harm caused by the spread of fake news.

Last week, NMPs Anthea Ong, Irene Quay and Walter Theseira had filed a notice to Parliament to propose four changes to the Bill.

While agreeing with its legislative intent, they had concerns that it grants the executive "far-reaching" powers to control what is said online, and such tools could be used to "suppress or chill debate and expression for political purposes", they said in a joint statement.

Other than the council, they proposed that the Government publicly explain its decisions when exercising its powers under the Act.

Responding, Mr Shanmugam said this will be set out in subsidiary legislation, which are rules and regulations made by the authorities to put Acts into practice. But the level of detail to be provided has to be decided case by case. "That's the best way of dealing with these things. You cannot go upfront and try to legislate every detail," he said.

On the amendment to have the minister "do everything reasonable to ensure that appeals to the minister are adjudicated without delay", Mr Shanmugam again said timelines will be set out in the subsidiary legislation.

He said the legislation will go further than what the NMPs proposed. In his speech, Mr Shanmugam disclosed that ministers have to decide in two days the applications on appeals against their decisions.

The NMPs also proposed inserting key principles that guide the exercise of powers under the Act, including the aim not to target "opinions, comments, critiques, satire, parody, generalisations, or statements of experiences".

Mr Shanmugam said that he appreciated the intent underpinning the proposal but some of the principles are unsuitable for primary legislation, adding that it is preferable to rely on case law in some instances.

Tech firms are partners in tackling fake news but they can't be left to self-regulate, says Shanmugam
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 8 May 2019

Technology companies are partners of the Government in tackling the problem of fake news but they cannot be left to regulate themselves, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam in Parliament yesterday.

Stressing that "tech companies are not our enemies", he nevertheless indicated that, given their profit motive and their past behaviour elsewhere, they could not be expected to act as a check on themselves.

Referring to Nominated MP Lim Sun Sun's suggestion of a tripartite approach involving the Government, tech companies and consumers rather than relying on legislation alone to tackle fake news, Mr Shanmugam accepted that this was a fair point.

He said that while legislation provides the framework, it could not achieve all the objectives by itself and a lot of cooperation is needed.

He added that tech firms are focused on profits, with little incentive to do things that will affect their bottom line.

But profits must not be made at the expense of Singaporeans, said Mr Shanmugam.

"And they know that the Singapore Government cannot be bought. We don't take money from their lobbyists. And we mean what we say," he added.

"They can do business with us honourably. Singapore provides a proper rule of law framework for everyone, but they must also be responsible."

Mr Shanmugam made these comments during the second reading of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, where he also discussed Singapore's approach towards tech companies on the issue, including reasons to regulate them.

The proposed legislation, aimed at protecting society against the effects of fake news, will give government ministers powers to issue correction or take-down orders over false statements online if these are deemed to be against the public interest.

Internet platforms, including social media sites, which fail to comply with correction notices could face fines of up to $1 million.

Yesterday, Mr Shanmugam set out arguments for regulating tech companies and social media giants, saying they have created "a permissive online environment for hate".

He cited Facebook's "years of inaction" over hate speech on its platform in Sri Lanka and said that it had underestimated the effects of fake news. He also pointed to such platforms' failure to quickly take down violent content following the shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March.

"The fact is that the more users, more content (they have) on their platforms, the more user attention they can sell to advertisers, and the more they can profit," said Mr Shanmugam.

In November 2016, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said the idea of fake news influencing the 2016 United States presidential election in any way was "a pretty crazy idea" - a comment which he said he regretted for being "dismissive" 10 months later.

And when questioned by the US Senate and Singapore's Select Committee formed to examine the issue of fake news, on whether it had plans to ban the purchase of advertisements if the payment was made using foreign currency, Facebook did not give straight answers, said Mr Shanmugam.

Proposed law enables targeted, swift action: Shanmugam
Shanmugam explains why new law is needed, noting it will give the courts greater powers
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 May 2019

The proposed law aimed at tackling online falsehoods can do so in a targeted and speedy manner, especially to quell viral fake news, while also providing the courts with greater powers, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.

This is why the new law is preferable even though other legislation already exists that allows the Government to compel the removal or correction of online falsehoods, he told Parliament when presenting the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill for debate.

Explaining the need for Singapore to have new laws to tackle the problem of online falsehoods, Mr Shanmugam said existing powers are wider than the proposed powers under the Bill, which has ironically been criticised for being too sweeping.

Citing current laws, such as the Broadcasting Act and Telecommunications Act, Mr Shanmugam said they collectively provide powers to order a take-down of any material that is objectionable on the grounds of public interest, criminalise the transmission of false or fabricated messages on the Internet and require clarifications to be put up, among other things.

"Some of these powers have existed since the 1960s. Others were added on subsequently with development of technology," he added.

"Most people in the street don't even know of the Broadcast Act, or other legislation, and (there is) no impact on what they have been saying."

Referring to the new Bill, Mr Shanmugam said four aspects of it have been criticised: the provision to order a take-down of material, the powers vested in the ministers, the definition of public interest, and the definition of falsehoods.

But he pointed out that under the Broadcasting Act, the Infocomm Media Development Authority can take down any material that it considers to be objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or anything that is prohibited by Singapore law.

Meanwhile, Section 45 of the Telecommunications Act criminalises the transmission of false or fabricated material.

In comparison, the new Bill is much narrower, and applies only to factual falsehoods, said Mr Shanmugam. In addition, the Government must show that the falsehoods are against public interest, which is set out in the draft law.

Another criticism of the new Bill is that it sidelines the courts.

Rebutting this, Mr Shanmugam said the courts will, in fact, have much greater oversight under the proposed law.

It provides for people to appeal directly to the courts through a fast and inexpensive process, he added. On top of this, people can seek judicial review.

"Some of the discussion by those opposed to this Bill... seems to be without an understanding of the existing position," he added.

"Whatever concerns there are about the Bill, they cannot logically have been increased by this Bill, and lawyers will know when you have a narrower Bill... in general, the narrower Act will apply. So in fact there represents a narrowing of the current position."

Noting that the Government could have decided to rely on existing legislation with slight tweaks, he said it would have meant that there was no need to make the Government's powers narrower, or to give greater judicial oversight.

"If we had taken that approach, the result would have been an instrument with none of the calibration that the Bill proposes, or the judicial oversight which is also going to be made speedier."

But new legislation was found to be preferable to provide the necessary scope, speed and adaptability to deal with the realities of the problem, Mr Shanmugam said, noting that it was the recommendation of the Select Committee that was set up last year to look into the problem of online falsehoods.

He added that falsehoods are a major factor attacking societies, and Singapore had to act fast to avoid going down the road of some countries where people have lost their trust in public institutions.

Fake news law covers closed platforms like chat groups and social media groups, says Edwin Tong
Closed, encrypted communications also covered by law
By Adrian Lim, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 May 2019

A proposed law to fight fake news will also cover closed communications platforms - such as chat groups and social media groups - and even those with end-to-end encryption that allows only senders and recipients to read the messages being exchanged.

Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong said in Parliament yesterday during the debate on the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill that closed platforms, the likes of chat groups and social media groups, serve as "a public megaphone" as much as open ones.

"As falsehoods can be hidden from view, they are ideal platforms for the deliberate spread of falsehoods. Researchers believe that in closed spaces, people are more susceptible to emotive falsehoods, because these are the spaces inhabited by the familiar and the trusted," he added.

"The Bill therefore recognises that platforms that are closed are not necessarily private. They can be used not only for personal and private communications, but also to communicate with hundreds or thousands of strangers at a time."

Being read for the second time in Parliament, the Bill provides a minister with powers to order corrections or removals of online falsehoods, among other tools. Corrections will take the form of a notice warning people about the falsehood, and this notice can set out the facts, or provide a link to the facts, Mr Tong said.

Besides a general correction that is amplified or published on certain platforms, such as news outlets and Internet intermediaries, the corrections can also be targeted, and act as a warning tag on the falsehood, he added.

Mr Tong said directions can be issued against false statements communicated over the Internet regardless of the platform, and whether it is open or closed.

He noted that a general correction order may be issued for closed communications platforms with end-to-end encryption.

"We will also find additional ways of dealing with the harm that can materialise from falsehoods spreading on encrypted closed platforms," Mr Tong said.

The directions under the Bill are also "flexible enough to deal with falsehoods spread on platforms that are developed in the future", he added.

Workers' Party opposes proposed law on fake news, says Pritam Singh
Courts should rule on what constitutes falsehoods
Having courts, rather than ministers, decide that initially would be fairer, says WP chief
By Rachel Au-Yong, Housing Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 May 2019

The Workers' Party (WP) has objected to the proposed fake news law, arguing that the courts - not ministers - should decide initially on what constitutes falsehoods, its chief Pritam Singh said in Parliament.

Former party leader Low Thia Khiang also warned of possible abuse of powers under the proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, and gave his reasons in Mandarin.

Their speeches prompted several back-and-forth exchanges between the opposition MPs and some People's Action Party (PAP) backbenchers and office-holders.

Speaking at the debate on the Bill yesterday, Mr Singh (Aljunied GRC) said that having the courts decide "at the very first instance" on falsehoods and take-down orders would be fairer and give the rulings greater legitimacy.

Given the way the Bill is set out, he said it is "fathomable that some statements the executive may interpret as offending are likely to exist along the misinformation and disinformation spectrum", but are not clear-cut falsehoods.

As an example, he cited Operation Spectrum - in which 22 people were arrested under the Internal Security Act in 1987 - where the decision made by the executive branch was questioned by the public and a few Cabinet ministers.

It is possible that a minister can invoke the powers in the Bill, even if a colleague disagrees with his decision, he argued.

"To avoid such inconsistency, wouldn't the courts represent a more neutral, transparent, accountable and uncontroversial platform to rule on such matters?" he said.

Mr Singh also pointed out that even if the courts can hear appeals against a minister's decision, they are "highly non-interventionist" and "cannot overrule executive decisions (that are) lawfully undertaken".

Instead, he suggested having duty judges to deal with urgent applications from the Government to take down falsehoods quickly or at short notice, or during times where there is a heightened risk of false or misleading postings online, like election periods.

He noted that under the proposed law, the executive will choose to act in some cases of falsehoods, but not in others - with questions asked in both cases on why it chose to do so.

In his speech, Mr Low (Aljunied GRC) said the underlying motivation for the Bill is to deter critics of the Government from speaking out on social media. "The aim of the Government is to protect the ruling party and achieve political monopoly," he said.

Like Mr Singh, he took issue with the Bill letting ministers decide what falsehoods are and what actions to take.

"It is like a match in which the minister is both player and referee," he said, adding: "How can we be sure that the ministers from the ruling party will not manipulate opinions and spread falsehoods to win elections?"

He also said that while people can turn to the courts to appeal against a minister's actions, the recourse is "both time-consuming and energy-sapping".

He added that the definition of falsehoods in the Bill is too wide-ranging and that the same words used by different people may be interpreted differently by the ministers.

"For example, the older generation cannot accept a non-Chinese prime minister - if these words came from the minister himself or his supporter, the minister may say this is a personal opinion.

"However, if these words came from the minister's political opponents on social media, the minister may also say that spreading such falsehoods will create racial conflicts, endangering national security. He can demand that this person publish what is acceptable to the Government or he will be punished."

Mr Low said the correct way is to instil in citizens a habit of being more discerning of what they read online and of verifying that factually.

He said the new law does not serve the goals of defending democracy and protecting public interest, as claimed by the Government. "It is more like the actions of a dictatorial government that (will) resort to any means to hold on to absolute power."

PAP MPs and office-holders, including Senior Parliamentary Secretary Sun Xueling and backbencher Christopher de Souza, disagreed with the opposition MPs.

Mr Singh had quoted Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong's remarks at the debate on the Protection from Harassment Act, and noted that the courts could issue protection orders swiftly.

But Mr Tong pointed out that for fake news, "it will be extremely difficult for a court to have a proper marshalling of the details and the facts and to decide on the case".

Mr Singh said that "philosophically, I have a different view as to who the appropriate decision maker is and it is my belief that we should try and see how the courts can deal with these falsehoods as quickly as possible".

Mr Tong countered: "That may be Mr Singh's philosophical position, but he was trying to quote my speech to make that point and I don't think that's accurate."

Battle lines drawn as MPs on both sides spar over fake news Bill
By Royston Sim, Deputy Political Editor, The Straits Times, 8 May 2019

The battle lines were drawn yesterday when the House debated a contentious draft law to tackle online falsehood.

Since its introduction last month, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill has drawn criticism from some quarters for vesting ministers with the power to decide what are falsehoods that are against the public interest.

Concerns have also been raised by academics and activists, among others, about it having a "chilling effect" on free speech.

The Government has spared no effort to try and dispel such notions.

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam has given multiple interviews to explain the proposed law - most recently to Ah Lian, a well-known local Internet personality and the alter ego of actress Michelle Chong.

Yesterday, he set out why the law is needed, and explained how it in fact narrows the Government's scope of powers and provides for greater judicial oversight. He also addressed other concerns raised about the Bill in a two-hour speech.

But as Day One of the debate showed, the Government still has its work cut out for it to allay remaining concerns.

The Workers' Party (WP) declared that it opposes the Bill, saying that the courts were a more neutral platform to decide on falsehoods - not ministers.

WP chief Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC), a member of the parliamentary Select Committee that looked into the issue of fake news, said the law "can easily become a proverbial Damocles' sword that would hang over members of the public who do not support the Government's narrative or toe the government line".

Former WP chief Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) charged that the legislation has a hidden agenda, and its underlying motive is in fact "to deter critics on social media".

It grants ministers "absolute power" to decide what are falsehoods and what punishments to mete out, he said, adding: "It is like during a match, the minister is both player and referee."

Nominated MP Irene Quay highlighted some concerns about the Bill, and repeated a proposal that she and two other NMPs have made to Parliament: for an independent council to review government decisions and "add much-needed integrity to our entire political system".

Ms Quay, Mr Singh and Mr Low all pointed to how the law could have a "chilling effect" on public discourse in their respective speeches.

Mr Shanmugam had earlier described it as "one of the most overused phrases", as he made the point that free speech should not be affected by the new law.

The debate reflected the disconnect that remains between the Government and those who are concerned by provisions in the Bill.

Besides Mr Shanmugam and Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong, three People's Action Party MPs also spoke on the Bill: Mr Christopher De Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC), Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) and Senior Parliamentary Secretary Sun Xueling.

All three were strongly in support of the Bill, and rebutted the points made by the other three MPs.

Mr De Souza made his case for why the executive branch, not the courts, is best placed to decide on falsehoods in the first instance, due to the need for urgent action.

Responding, Mr Singh cited an example from the Select Committee report to show that executive action may not always be the solution to a problem. The example involved how the German police debunked false claims that they covered up crimes allegedly committed by immigrants. Yet their action still contributed to street protests taking place.

Mr De Souza then rose and quoted four sections of the same report which stated that swift action is key to stem the spread of fake news.

He also raised the issue of the independent council suggested by Ms Quay, prompting her to clarify that the NMPs envisioned the council reviewing past cases, not making executive decisions on falsehoods.

Mr Seah said that in voicing concerns about powers the new law would grant to ministers, Mr Singh did not address Mr Shanmugam's point that the legislation provided for a narrower set of powers than what the Government already has.

Earlier, Mr Tong took issue with a point made by Mr Singh. The WP chief had referred to remarks Mr Tong made during the debate on another Bill, and argued that the courts could conceivably deal with falsehoods speedily.

Said Mr Tong: "That may be Mr Singh's philosophical position but he was trying to quote my speech to make that point and I don't think that's accurate."

The back-and-forth during the debate continues today. Opposition MPs will aim to make the case for why the courts should be the initial decision-maker and not ministers.

PAP MPs who have spoken thus far have yet to raise concerns about the proposed law, and it bears watching who, if any, will do so and what will be highlighted.

Mr Shanmugam has addressed at some length the criticisms already levelled at the new law and has also responded to changes that have been proposed by the NMPs.

On their idea for an independent council, he suggested it would lead to "unnecessary bureaucratic bloat", and said it is preferable that MPs and Parliament hold the executive directly accountable.

He took pains to explain the rationale for the Bill. Today, he will once again need to address the concerns that remain.

Parliament: Shanmugam addresses 5 concerns over proposed fake news law
By Adrian Lim, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 May 2019

A proposed law to fight fake news was read for the second time in Parliament on Tuesday (May 7), with Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam opening the debate on the much-talked-about Bill.

Since it was introduced in Parliament on April 1, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill has elicited concerns among the public, including over whether free speech could be limited, and if certain terms in the legislation were too broadly defined.

In his speech, Mr Shanmugam addressed five of these issues, and sought to dispel the misconceptions surrounding them:


Mr Shanmugam told the House that the Bill has narrower terms than the current law.

He said that with the proposed legislation, the minister has the power to declare that an article contains falsehoods and to ask for a correction to be carried, or for the article to be taken down. This direction is open to be challenged in court, and if the minister is wrong, he gets overruled.

Mr Shanmugam refuted claims that the proposed law creates a "new crime" of spreading falsehoods, calling these assertions inaccurate. Falsehoods are already criminalised under the Telecoms Act, which also applies to the Internet, he said.

While the fake news laws also cover the same ground of falsehoods, they differ in terms of intent.

The new laws require the individual to have known, or have reason to know, that the information was false and also that spreading it was likely to prejudice public interest. These two requirements have to be satisfied, said Mr Shanmugam.

Mr Shanmugam also debunked claims that the recourse to judicial review was not available, and that a judge could not examine the proportionality of a minister's direction, saying these assertions were wrong.

He rebutted claims that a clause in the Bill - allowing certain persons to be exempted from the law - could be used for some "sinister purpose".

"This exemption power is a common provision in many pieces of legislation," said Mr Shanmugam, listing examples such as the Executive Condominium Housing Scheme Act and Postal Services Act.

He explained that it is not possible to comply with the Act in certain instances, for reasons such as a technical impossibility, and the law has to rely on this provision.


Mr Shanmugam said free speech should not be affected by the proposed new laws. Rather, what is being dealt with are falsehood, bots, trolls and fake accounts.

He cited National University of Singapore law professor Thio Li-ann, who gave evidence during the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods hearings in March last year.

Prof Thio, he quoted, made the following points on the ambit of free speech: that "not all forms of speech are worthy of equal protection", and that falsely crying fire in a crowded theatre is not protected as valuable speech.

He also cited the words from a British House of Lords judgment, which said that there is "no human right to disseminate information that is not true" and "no public interest is served by communicating misinformation".

"The working of a democratic society depends on the members of that society being informed and not misinformed. Misleading people and... purveying as facts statements which are not true is destructive of the democratic society," Mr Shanmugam said, citing the judgment.

Mr Shanmugam said that where speech does not serve the justifications of free speech, by harming the search for truth or by preventing citizens from becoming informed on issues, that does not warrant protection.


While some have asked for the proposed law to define "fact" and state that opinions are not covered under the legislation, Mr Shanmugam said this was carefully considered but decided against.

He explained that there is a body of case law on what is fact and not fact, and that it is better to rely on existing case law.

"When there is a dispute, the matter can be dealt with in court. So how else do you decide?" he asked the House.


Mr Shanmugam said it is important to remember that the new law does not cover statements just because they are against the public interest. "Those statements must be false statements of fact," he added.

Some have said that the definition of what is in the public interest is too wide and the Bill should not include Clause 4(f), which relates to the diminution of public confidence in the functions of government institutions, Mr Shanmugam said.

He said that online falsehoods seek to break down trust by attacking institutions, and it is important that the institutions are protected against them.


Mr Shanmugam told the House that a process will be in place to allow an individual to appeal against a minister's direction. The detailed procedure will be in subsidiary legislation.

But he gave an overview of the process:

(a) The individual must apply to the minister to cancel a direction, and a standard form will be provided online for this. The form must be sent to an e-mail address, which will be given in the minister's direction.

(b) The relevant minister must make a decision no later than two days after the form is received.

(c) The appeal to the court will have to be filed no later than 14 days after the minister decides on the application to cancel the direction. Simple standard forms that an appellant can fill out and file in court will be provided.

(d) The court will be asked to fix the hearing within six days, if the appellant attends before the duty registrar to request an expedited hearing.

(e) The documents will need to be served on the minister no later than the next day. To make it easy, an e-mail address will be provided for the appellant to serve the documents on the minister.

(f) The minister must then file his reply in court no later than three days after the documents are served as prescribed.

Mr Shanmugam said that an individual will have the opportunity to have his case heard in the High Court as early as nine working days after initiating the challenge to the minister.

The court will continue to have a general discretion to extend timelines where there is good reason to do so, said Mr Shanmugam.

Costs will be kept "very low" for individuals and no hearing fees will be charged for the first three days, while further days of hearing will be charged at the usual rate, he said.

Even so, the court will have the power to waive the fees, he added.

This should not be taken as license to abuse the process, and the courts will still have the power to deal with parties in the usual manner, Mr Shanmugam said.

Tech firms will work with Government on fake news law despite concerns
By Adrian Lim, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 10 May 2019

Technology companies said yesterday they will work with the Government on the implementation of a new fake news law, despite their concerns about portfolio ministers' powers to order corrections and take-downs of social media posts and the legislation's impact on the digital media sector.

Twitter highlighted the new Codes of Practice which tech companies must adhere to under the law, to prevent their platforms from being used to spread online falsehoods.

Its spokesman said it hopes the Government will take into account the issues it raised during consultation, and that its recommendations would be reflected in the Codes of Practice, particularly the "implications for freedom of expression and the potential for regulatory overreach".

"While the full extent of the law has yet to be revealed, we hope the concerns carefully articulated by academics, journalists and civil society groups in Singapore and around the world in recent weeks will be addressed appropriately," he added.

The comments came a day after Parliament passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill on Wednesday.

The Codes of Practice, which are being developed by the Government in consultation with Internet intermediaries like social media platforms, require the companies to have reasonable verification measures to prevent fake accounts or bots from being created or used for malicious activities.

The companies also have to ensure that political advertisements disclose who is the source, and have systems in place to downplay fake news.

A Google spokesman said it remains concerned that the new law will "hurt innovation and the growth of the digital information ecosystem". The spokesman added: "How the law is implemented matters, and we are committed to working with policymakers on this process."

Facebook's vice-president of public policy in Asia-Pacific, Mr Simon Milner, noted it had recently rolled out its third-party fact-checking service to Singapore.

"We remain concerned with aspects of the new law which grants broad powers to the Singapore executive branch to compel us to remove content they deem to be false and to push a government notification to users," he said. He added Facebook hopes there will be a "proportionate and measured approach in practice" of the law.

Twitter, meanwhile, said it was reviewing the passing of the law, adding that it was committed to working with the Government and others to "promote the health of the public conversation".

The Asia Internet Coalition's managing director Jeff Paine said its members will work with the Government on implementing the new law, and promoting digital and media literacy to address and reduce the impact of online falsehoods.

Additional reporting by Tham Yuen-C

With fake news law passed, all eyes now on how it is used
Onus on the authorities to show law will be applied judiciously, not to criticisms or views
By Royston Sim, Deputy Political Editor, The Straits Times, 10 May 2019

After a marathon two-day debate that spanned 14 hours, Parliament passed into law late on Wednesday night a contentious Bill aimed at combating online falsehoods.

The outcome was expected, given the People's Action Party's (PAP) majority in the House. But the new law drew one of the fiercest debates in recent memory. All nine Workers' Party (WP) MPs roundly criticised the proposals, and their criticisms drew strong rebuttals from PAP MPs and office-holders.

To underline his party's objection to the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, WP chief Pritam Singh called for a "division" - a procedure during which the vote of each MP is formally recorded.

The final result reflected the divide in sentiment among MPs. Of the 84 MPs present, 72 voted "yes". All nine WP MPs voted "no", and three Nominated MPs abstained.

In their speeches, most PAP MPs reiterated the Government's rationale for the law. They outlined the threat posed by fake news, and pointed to the need for quick and urgent action to contain viral online falsehoods when these are uploaded. They agreed that ministers, supported by civil servants, were best placed to do so.

They felt that the position outlined by the Government - to have ministers make the initial call on what is false, and for the courts to be the final arbiter for appeals - struck the right balance between speed and accountability.

In the middle were three Nominated MPs - Associate Professor Walter Theseira, Ms Anthea Ong and Ms Irene Quay, who proposed amendments. The trio, who abstained on the final vote, agreed with the intent of the new law, but questioned if the right balance had been struck.

Their proposals included that the legislation set out key principles under which the law would be applied, and require the Government to publicly explain its decisions when exercising its powers. Dr Theseira expressed concern that the Bill "does not sufficiently limit, guide and oversee the exercise of executive powers against online falsehoods".

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam responded to their proposals on Tuesday, and assured the House that some of the changes the NMPs sought would be set out in subsidiary legislation. But Ms Ong pointed out that subsidiary legislation can be changed without needing to go through Parliament. Their proposed amendments were, however, voted down.

The WP abstained during the vote on the amendments.

The WP MPs stood at the other end of the debate on the legislation. They charged that the proposed law could be abused for political purposes and wielded to stifle criticism of the ruling party.

They proposed having the courts, as a neutral body, decide on what were falsehoods, rather than have the decision vested with ministers.

It is unclear, after the lengthy debate, whether the Government managed to bring any of the law's critics round to its point of view.

That said, academics who were concerned about whether their research would run afoul of the law would likely have felt more at ease after Education Minister Ong Ye Kung's speech.

Mr Ong explained why academic research will not be affected, and said the real concern from some academics is the law's potential impact on political discourse here.

University of Michigan professor Linda Lim, one of 124 academics who signed off on a letter voicing concern about the law, said in a statement to the Financial Times after the law was passed that the group appreciated the Government's reassurance that academic work would be unaffected. But they regretted "that such reassurances are not written into the law itself, which remains vague and open-ended", she added.

In his speech rounding up the debate, Mr Shanmugam responded to criticisms by the WP. He noted that its MPs repeatedly used stock phrases that they kept in "deep freeze" and which they brought out of the chiller occasionally.

He referred to WP chairman Sylvia Lim's remarks during a 2016 debate on the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act, when she said the law would have "a chilling effect on public discourse" and "leave Singaporeans at the mercy of administrative discretion".

Recounting similar statements from other WP MPs, he said as the years pass, it can be seen that those statements were "quite extreme and unconnected with reality".

Mr Shanmugam repeatedly said the new law should not affect free speech.

It targets the likes of falsehoods, bots and fake accounts. He also said it is not a political tool for the PAP to wield power.

Now that the law has passed, all eyes will be on how ministers wield its powers once it takes effect. There is bound to be scrutiny of cases where something is deemed to be a falsehood that is against the public interest, and which has to be corrected or taken down.

Dr Theseira cited an example of how the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) reported data showing a sharp rise in ComCare assistance recipients between 2012 and 2015.

"A subject statement made the claim that this was 'the worst poverty result ever officially reported in Singapore'. MSF called this 'not true'," the NMP said, as he made the point that this was a difference of opinion based on the same facts and not a falsehood.

His example illustrates how concerns remain that agencies could jump on contrary statements or opinions and label them "false".

Dr Theseira said caution is required to avoid the incorrect exercise of powers under the Act.

Indeed, the onus is on the authorities to show that the new law, when it takes effect, will be applied judiciously - against falsehoods that can damage social cohesion, and not applied to legitimate criticisms and opinions.

Fake news law not an attempt to suppress opinions: Heng Swee Keat
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 11 May 2019

ZURICH • The new law to combat online fake news is not an attempt to suppress different opinions, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday. But such differences in opinion must be grounded in fact in order for "good discourse" to take place, he added.

Speaking to journalists at the end of a five-day study visit to Switzerland, Mr Heng was asked about opposition to the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, which Parliament passed on Wednesday.

MPs debated for 14 hours over two days on the Bill, which has drawn concerns that it could potentially be abused by the Government to stifle criticism and have a chilling effect on free speech.

"To expect that 100 per cent of people would agree on a particular course of action is not realistic," said Mr Heng, noting there will be people who have concerns and think a different course should be taken.

"But when you think about it, as Minister Shanmugam made very clear, as well as several other ministers who have spoken, this is not an attempt at suppressing different opinions," he added.

Mr Heng recounted a recent meeting with a group of Americans during his work trip to the United States, who told him they were taught as children that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion.

"But these opinions have to be grounded in fact, in truth," Mr Heng said. "If you and I disagree because we have completely different assumptions on what the facts are... we don't actually have good discourse, because we can't debate (the topic's) merits based on verifiable facts.

"Worse still, if one party bases an opinion on an entirely erroneous set of facts, we will come to the wrong conclusion."

Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill -1 Apr 2019

Singapore to introduce new law to prevent spread of fake news; the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill introduced in Parliament on 1 Apr 2019

Fake news must be curbed before it affects society: PM Lee Hsien Loong

Law Minister K. Shanmugam responds to key issues on fake news Bill

Second Reading Speech by Senior Minister of State for Law, Mr Edwin Tong on Protection from Harassment (Amendment) Bill -7 May 2019

Speech by Mr S Iswaran, Minister for Communications and Information, during the Second Reading for Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill on 8 May 2019

Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education, at the Second Reading of the Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulation Bil- -8 May 2019

Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods - Causes, Consequences and Countermeasures

Report of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehood -20 Sep 2018

Select Committee public hearings:

No comments:

Post a Comment