Three Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) have proposed amendments to the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act that was introduced in Parliament by the Law Ministry earlier, in April.
The draft bill, which aims to provide the government with powers to act against online falsehoods to protect public interest, intends to give ministers the authority to determine what is an online falsehood and how to act against purveyors of what they deem to be fake news.
NMPs Anthea Ong, Irene Quay and Walter Theseira have since proposed amendments to the POFMA bill, in a joint statement released yesterday (30 Apr).
Although the three NMPs agree with the “legislative intent” of the “far-reaching” bill, they have made suggestions for changes that will “preserve the ability of the Executive to act against online falsehoods in the public interest, while ensuring that such decisions are subject to good governance.”
The amendments the three NMPs proposed in their statement are:
- a clause that sets out key principles that guide the exercise of powers under the Act;
- requirements that any directions issued are publicly justified;
- requirements that the appeals process is expedited; and
- the creation of an independent council to monitor online falsehoods and provide routine oversight on the use of executive powers under the Act.
The NMPs suggested that the members of this independent council could be appointed by a Select Committee of Parliament.
Noting that “many in Singapore and globally have expressed concern that the Bill grants the Executive far-reaching powers to control online communications,” the three NMPs said: “We share these concerns, as such tools could be used by the Executive and future governments to suppress or chill debate and expression for political purposes.”
The Government has assured the public that the intent of the bill is not to stifle free speech or criticism. Noting that the bill, in its current form, “does not contain such assurances that limit how the Bill’s powers can be used,” the NMPs highlighted that “the Bill also contains broadly worded clauses defining what is a false statement and what constitutes public interest.”
They added: “We are concerned that these broadly worded clauses give the Executive considerable discretion to take action against online communications, without protection in the primary legislation that codifies the assurances given by the Government in explaining the Bill to the public.”
Asserting that “legislation is only one spoke in the wheel of change needed to address fake news,” the NMPs added that “many Members of Parliament share these concerns to varying extents, and will speak during the Second Reading of the Bill, where the Government will address concerns by putting its thinking behind this Bill on the record.”
Parliament is due to convene for a second reading of the proposed bill, next Monday. Read the joint statement in full here:
“We agree with the legislative intent of the said Bill. Online falsehoods can harm the public interest, even when there is no malevolent intent. All parts of society – whether individuals, groups, or large, global technology companies – must play a role in minimizing the spread of online falsehoods, in order to protect well-informed democratic debate, and well-deserved trust in public institutions. But because online falsehoods can be so harmful, and because so many play a role in creating or transmitting such falsehoods, the Bill is complex and grants the Government far-reaching powers over online communication to fight falsehoods. This has created significant concern.
“While the Bill is far-reaching, we support the legislative intent behind the Bill because it is clear we can no longer rely entirely on non-legislative measures to address the problem of online falsehoods because:
(a) bots (fake accounts), trolls, fake news sites and micro-targeting (through analytics) exist to deliberately propagate fake news;
(b) studies have shown that people are more likely to share fake news than real news, even if they have no ill-intent, due to confirmatory bias; and
(c) the profit incentives of online information platforms to prioritise consumer engagement over providing contrary views or the truth.
“The speed with which online falsehoods spread and threaten public interest cannot be addressed effectively by a slow judicial process, and requires decisive executive action. The Bill adds tools that are novel and more finely graduated – such as Correction Directions – to promote the overall goal of educating an informed citizenry.
“Singapore joins countries such as Australia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand – just to name a few robust democracies – that are seeking to legislate against fake news or already have legislation in place.
“We believe Singaporeans, including those highly critical of this Government, agree that the Government has a responsibility to protect harmony, social cohesion, and the integrity of the country’s institutions and political processes against online falsehoods . However, many in Singapore and globally have expressed concern that the Bill grants the Executive far-reaching powers to control online communications. We share these concerns, as such tools could be used by the Executive and future governments to suppress or chill debate and expression for political purposes. The question is: how do we mitigate such concerns, while ensuring that Government has the ability to deal with the full range of threats posed by deliberate online falsehoods?
“The Government has explicitly assured the public that this Bill is not intended to stifle or chill free speech, debate, and criticism, and in fact aims to ensure such debate can occur without the corrosive presence of online falsehoods. However, the Bill as written does not contain such assurances that limit how the Bill’s powers can be used. The Bill also contains broadly worded clauses defining what is a false statement and what constitutes public interest. We are concerned that these broadly worded clauses give the Executive considerable discretion to take action against online communications, without protection in the primary legislation that codifies the assurances given by the Government in explaining the Bill to the public.
“After significant consideration and consultation with stakeholders over the last 3 weeks, we have proposed amendments in the following areas:
(1) a clause that sets out key principles (“Principles of the Act”) that guide the exercise of powers under the Act including codifying the aim that the Act is targeted at statements that are materially false and not opinions, comments, critiques, satire, parody, generalisations or statements of experiences);
(2) requirements that any Directions issued are publicly justified;
(3) requirements that the appeals process is expedited; and
(4) the creation of an independent Council (“ICOF”) to monitor online falsehoods and provide routine oversight on the use of executive powers under the Act, and whose members shall be appointed by a Select Committee of Parliament.
“The Principles of Act codifies some of the explicit assurances that Government has given over the past few weeks, and which will likely be provided at the second reading debate, into the primary legislation. The Principles also reflects concerns by researchers and civil society on how the Bill could chill criticism and research that is based on contentious facts. The Principles of Act states that well-informed, free, and critical speech is necessary for a well-functioning democracy, so the Act should be applied carefully to avoid chilling such speech. It sets out that the Act should be used in a proportionate way, so the least restrictive tools (such as Corrections) are used first, with the most restrictive (“Take-downs”) used only if necessary. It also protects the role of research in society, as research often contests established facts or ideas in order to advance knowledge, by stating that differences in facts established by an authority and a researcher do not imply falsehood just by that difference alone.
“We believe these amendments preserve the ability of the Executive to act against online falsehoods in the public interest, while ensuring that such decisions are subject to good governance. Each of these proposed amendments is explained in further detail in the attached ‘Explanatory Notes for the Notice of Amendments’.
“We also wish to highlight our reasons for not proceeding with two proposals from concerned stakeholders, although we respect and appreciate their motivating sentiments. The definition of a statement of fact, in Section 2(2), has been criticised for being vague and di fficult to understand from a layperson’s view. However, the definition of a statement of fact must provide a clear interpretation to both the Courts in trying a statement of fact, and the Ministries in exercising powers under the Act. This is an important issue that must be dealt with by the appropriate experts in jurisprudence. Without substantial expert legal research on this, we find it best to address this concern with reference to the proposed Principles of the Act.
“Section 4(f), which specifies ‘public confidence’ in the Government as part of the public interest, has been criticised because it allows the Executive broad discretion to exercise powers under the Act – so long as the falsehood affects public confidence. The question is how to balance the legitimate exercise of power to protect public institutions against online falsehoods that could destructively undermine confidence with the rights of the public to freely criticise the efficacy and quality of such institutions. An amendment that removes Section 4(f) entirely would remove a graduated tool for addressing online falsehoods that undermine confidence. Without this tool, we believe the Executive may have to use provisions in other laws that may be more draconian, or, rely on conventional media methods, which may not be effective. This is also an important issue that requires careful consideration. Without a better definition of public confidence in Section 4(f), we believe the concern is best dealt with reference to the Principles of the Act.
“Many Members of Parliament share these concerns to varying extents, and will speak during the Second Reading of the Bill, where the Government will address concerns by putting its thinking behind this Bill on the record. Why, then, have we decided to go beyond the Second Reading debate to propose Amendments to the Bill? First, although the Government will be committing to the public how it intends to apply the Bill during the Second Reading debate, this commitment cannot bind a future Government unless it is incorporated in the Bill itself. This is because the text of the Bill takes precedence over the debate or policy statements if there is any conflict. We therefore believe improving the text of the Bill is the best way to address these concerns. Second, Parliament has the final authority to approve any laws proposed by the Government. We believe Parliament must meaningfully exercise that authority to further public confidence in our robust Parliamentary processes. The Government has said that Ministers exercising their powers under this Bill will be accountable to Parliament and the public, and we believe that process starts with the consideration of these amendments to the Bill.
“Finally, we cannot emphasise enough that legislation is only one spoke in the wheel of change needed to address fake news. Ensuring audiences critically question what they read with a robust media literacy effort must be the focus and priority of the Government and society. This means starting in schools, workplaces and communities through sincere and long-term co-operation between teachers, journalists, social media firms, businesses and the Government. The Government must further ensure it protects and furthers public trust in authority by only using executive power to protect society, and limiting the use of powers when it may discourage or chill robust criticism – even when criticism touches on contested facts. The Independent Council (ICOF) proposed in the amendments will facilitate this education and awareness effort. An informed citizenry can only be created and sustained if the Government remains open to debate and criticism in an increasingly complex world where no foolproof solution exists to the challenge of online falsehoods.”