Singapore—Bloomberg reports that the country’s Communications and Information Minister, S Iswaran, called social media giant Facebook’s criticism of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) an “allergic reaction,”
In a March 11 Bloomberg Television interview, Mr Iswaran said that the Covid-19 is both a “healthcare and communication” challenge and a “real test of the resilience of a society.” He said that the Government has sought to communicate information about the novel coronavirus spread in a “timely, accurate and transparent manner.”
Therefore, it’s important to take action against misinformation and falsehoods, as these could spread fear and panic. “We have to act swiftly and decisively to quell such things.”
When the interviewer asked him about the backlash to POFMA, such as criticism that it could be a hindrance to free speech, as Facebook said, “it was told to deny access to a blog page on its own website.”
The Communications and Information Minister said that directives have largely been issued for the purpose of posting side-by-side corrections so that readers can decide on the matter.
In the specific instance that the interviewer was referring to, Mr Iswaran said this pertained to a “recalcitrant Facebook page” that “did not comply,” and ultimately, “we had to end up blocking” the page.
This was just for one site, he explained, that was “persistently” posting falsehoods.”
In mid-February, the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) directed Facebook to disable access to the STR Facebook page to Singaporean users, under Section 24 of POFMA.
Shortly before this, MCI also issued a directive for the page to be tagged as a “Declared Online Location” (DOL), compelling Alex Tan, who owns the STR page, to say in a notice that it has “a history of communicating falsehoods”. It is the first site to be identified as a DOL.
Mr Tan was given until February 16 to comply with this, which he chose not to. Afterward, MCI issued the order for access to the page to be blocked in the country.
A spokesman for the company said on February 18, “We believe orders like this are disproportionate and contradict the government’s claim that POFMA would not be used as a censorship tool. We’ve repeatedly highlighted this law’s potential for overreach and we’re deeply concerned about the precedent this sets for the stifling of freedom of expression in Singapore.”
Mr Iswaran said he was unsurprised by Facebook’s response, saying, “I can imagine there is a certain allergic reaction to that.”
He added, “We are quite clear that we must take action against some of the adverse consequences because if not, it can undermine the confidence in our institutions and ultimately our whole democracy. And the way we have been exercising our powers has been proportionate.”
He added that the Government had consulted with tech platforms in crafting POFMA.
“In the lead-up to the legislation, there were several rounds of consultation with tech companies in order to understand some of their concerns and see where we could accommodate some of their issues and that was in fact taken into account.” —/TISG