Senior Minister of State for Law and Health, Edwin Tong, has asserted that “most citizens” want strong fake news laws. Declaring that only a small group is “crying wolf” over the proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) bill, Mr Tong said: “Crying wolf repeatedly gets no attention.”
Mr Tong made these comments as he rebutted criticisms against POFMA made by the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC).
AIC is an industry association made up of leading internet and technology companies, such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Apple, eBay, Expedia and Paypal, which seeks to promote the understanding and resolution of Internet policy issues in the Asia Pacific.
In an editorial published by the national broadsheet on Saturday, AIC’s managing director Jeff Paine offered suggestions as to how the proposed POFMA bill could be improved. While acknowledging that AIC supports the intent behind the bill, Paine asserted that AIC has “strong reservations on specific provisions – reservations that are shared by veteran journalists, legal experts, academics and human rights representatives.”
Writing that it is believed that the bill “will impact freedom of expression and curtail the rights of individuals, Singaporean or otherwise, to freely express opinions and participate in informed discussions, even debates, that are necessary to ensure executive transparency and accountability,” Mr Paine said that the vague wording of parts of the bill “creates room for a highly subjective application of the law.”
He added: “The broadness of these prescribed definitions, as well as the breadth of the Bill’s scope to cover virtually all kinds of communication, gives rise to a very real possibility of misuse by the authorities charged with its implementation.”
Expressing concerns over the “lack of specific protections for the expression of opinion and criticism,” Mr Paine called it “striking” that criticism, opinion, satire and parody are not explicitly addressed or protected in the bill.
He expressed further concern over the fact that POFMA will give ministers the authority to take action against what they deem to be an online falsehood.
Criticising the “extraordinary amount of power [that is put] in the hands of individual ministers” Mr Paine also took issue with the “limited scope of judicial oversight and the lack of robust safeguards in the appeal process.”
Mr Paine proceeded to ask the Government to provide checks and balances via an independent body, as well as specific guidelines, criteria and a process for ministers to justify the reasons if they choose to act against what they deem to be fake news.
He also asked the Government to ensure that “freedom of expression and speech is protected” and ensure that the bill explicitly exempts criticism, opinion, satire and parody from the law. Mr Paine also asked for transparency when it comes to the use of the exemption clause in the bill.
In response, ruling party politician Edwin Tong wrote that Mr Paine’s article “misstates” POFMA and that this is “surprising, given the Government’s extensive consultations with technology companies, not to mention our public explanations.”
Rebutting Mr Paine’s claims point by point, Mr Tong said that many of the views Mr Pain expressed are “untrue” and that the Government has already explained many of the issues he raised.
Asserting that a court can review ministers’ decisions when it comes to the use of the bill, Mr Tong said that “the definition of “fact” is established in jurisprudence”. He added that timelines for ministers to respond will be specified in the law and that the bill “actually extends the courts’ role, beyond the current legal position.”
Asserting that the exemption clause is primarily meant to benefit tech companies where compliance to law cannot be achieved due to technical issues, Mr Tong claimed the Government is prepared to remove this clause if tech companies do not need it.
Mr Tong also said that Mr Paine’s recommendations of implementing other steps in the process is “consistent with some technology companies’ delaying tactics seen over the years in many countries.” He declared: “In some countries, people have died because of this.”
Accusing Mr Paine of making other “inaccurate statements” and of “ignoring” the “evidence presented to the Select Committee, the Select Committee’s Report, the evidence of the damage that is being done to communities around the world through the abuse of technology platforms,” Mr Tong disputed Mr Paine’s view that the overwhelming consensus is that POFMA will impact free speech.
Asserting that the Government is “confident that there is broad and deep support among an overwhelming majority of Singaporeans for laws to tackle online falsehoods,” Mr Tong said that “the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans want strong laws to deal with online falsehoods.”
He added: “The Government is confident that most Singaporeans understand the Bill’s main thrust. The concerted attempts by a small group of persons to mislead have not got any traction among most Singaporeans.
“The small group of persons I have referred to, speak in a shrinking echo chamber, with increasing shrillness. Some take refuge in alarmist language (including comparisons with nuclear wars) in desperate attempts to get attention.”
Asserting that “crying wolf repeatedly gets no attention,” Mr Tong also brought up civil society’s opposition to the online news licensing legislation that the Government tried to pass in 2013 as an example where “Singaporeans saw for themselves that post-2013, nothing had really changed.”
Asserting that his response to Mr Paine is part of the Government’s “public education efforts,” Mr Tong said that the concerns of academics who have “misunderstood” the bill and the question of “middle-ground Singaporeans” will be answered.