Singapore Passes `Fake News' Bill Amid Concerns for Free Speech

(Bloomberg) -- Singapore’s lawmakers passed a bill to combat "fake news" after two days of debate about who gets to define what’s true and false.

Under the new bill, it will be government ministers who make that call. Singapore’s Parliament passed the bill in a vote of 72 to 9 late Wednesday night, Straits Times reported.

The bill, which is expected to become law later this year, has raised questions in a city-state where an openness to international business is key to the country’s viability.

Singapore Passes `Fake News' Bill Amid Concerns for Free Speech

"Free speech should not be affected by this bill," Law Minister K. Shanmugam said in parliament this week. "We are talking here about falsehoods, we are talking about bots, we are talking about trolls, we are talking about fake accounts, and so on."

It is just one of many nations grappling with how to respond to propaganda and false information online. Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s unit, Google, which have large offices in Singapore, along with other social media companies, have come under pressure to address lies spread on their platforms.

Concern Remains

Misinformation is a challenging issue that Google is working hard to address, said Singapore-based Google spokesman Chris Brummitt.

“The intensity of the debate over the last few weeks has highlighted the need for a full and transparent public consultation,” Brummitt said in a statement on Thursday. “We remain concerned that this law will hurt innovation and the growth of the digital information ecosystem. How the law is implemented matters, and we are committed to working with policy makers on this process.”

Facebook said it hopes that reassuring ministerial statements lead to a proportionate and measured approach in practice. “We remain concerned with aspects of the new law which grant 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,” Simon Milner, its vice president of public policy for Asia Pacific, said in a statement.

He said Facebook is already committed to reducing the spread of misinformation in Singapore and elsewhere, and recently introduced third-party fact checking in the city-state.

Truth as Infrastructure

Singapore’s solution to misinformation will be to treat truth itself as a form of infrastructure. In a nation that prides itself on the world’s top-ranked airport and a spotless subway system, that will mean strict government oversight.

The public infrastructure of truth itself provides society with a shared reality, Shanmugam said this week, arguing that public discourse can only take place when there is free and responsible speech. Without it, he said, the political system on the island would malfunction.

"When an infrastructure of fact is damaged, the ability of countries to face challenges is weakened," he said.

Under the proposed law, government ministers would be able to order a correction to be carried alongside a false or misleading claim, and material not in the public interest to be taken down. If someone disagreed, they can take their case to the courts. Though there would be a defined appeals process -- and the government stressed it would be quick and cheap to take your case to the courts -- compliance would be required before appeal.

Opposition leader Pritam Singh said in parliament this week that the courts would be a more neutral venue for setting a line between what is and isn’t misinformation, especially the statements in question criticized by the government itself. “There is a genuine sense amongst the public that this bill can easily be abused in the wrong hands,” he said.

Cautionary tales of how governments deal with information span the globe. In China, internet usage is heavily censored. Russia has been faulted by several countries including the U.S. for weaponizing misinformation to meddle in Western elections. U.S. President Donald Trump tallied more than 10,000 false or misleading statements in just over 800 days in office, according to the Washington Post.

Shanmugam maintains criticism of the measure is overblown. Existing laws are stricter, he said, even if people in the country aren’t broadly aware those rules already exist.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.