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Facebook and Twitter worry over Singapore fake news laws

Tech giants fear new rules could cost millions and set global trend

The Parliament House of Singapore   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- Tech giants including Facebook and Twitter are alarmed by proposed "fake news" laws in Singapore that they fear will cost millions to comply with and could set a global precedent.

The industry's regional lobby group, the Asia Internet Coalition, which represents Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Yahoo! and others, hit out at the draft legislation as "prescriptive," in a statement to the Nikkei Asian Review.

Consultants to the tech groups said there was widespread concern. "There is a lot of freaking out," said one consultant who works closely with these big tech and media companies across the region, and who asked not to be named because it could jeopardize business relationships. The Singapore government "is asking for platform-level changes that will have a global effect."

Designed to stem the viral spread of fake news online, companies will be required to respond rapidly to ministerial directives declaring a social media post or online news story to be untrue.

If the offending content is not taken down, or a correction is not displayed prominently alongside it, then companies face fines of up to SG$1 million ($740,000). Individuals who post content deemed untrue could face fines of up to SG$20,000 and/or 12 months in jail.

Appeals against directives can only be launched after the fact, first to the minister who issued the directive, and then to the High Court, a process that is likely to be time consuming and costly.

Expected to face little opposition in parliament where the ruling People's Action Party enjoys an overwhelming majority, the new laws are likely to come into effect in the second half of this year.

What worries big tech most "is fragmentation," said Dexter Thillien, a technology analyst at Fitch Solutions, adding that building technical fixes to comply with individual laws would not be prohibitively expensive if only Singapore enacted such laws.

"They're global businesses and they want to have more or less the same type of services everywhere," Thillien said. "If you have a rule in Australia, a rule in New Zealand, a rule in Canada, a rule in Europe, a rule in the US, a rule in Singapore, and they're slightly different, obviously that increases the cost of compliance."

Singapore, which ranks 151 out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders' 2018 press freedom index, already has several legal tools to force content to be taken offline or blocked, and regularly uses swingeing defamation and sedition laws to target critics.

Still, the city-state also serves as the Asia-Pacific headquarters for many tech and social media companies, including Facebook, Twitter and Google. Facebook is also in the process of building a $1 billion data center in Singapore that is due to open in 2022.

"The new law is designed to give [the government] a precision tool to tackle the specific issues related to online content,'' said Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University and a former nominated member of parliament. Forcing platforms and websites to post "corrections" while leaving the original content in the public domain gives the government a more "calibrated approach," said Tan.

Under the proposed laws, sites or users deemed to be repeat offenders may be blacklisted, with internet service providers and "intermediaries" such as social media platforms required to shut off access to paid content from blacklisted sites in order to prevent them from deriving revenue from readers in Singapore.

Social media companies have consistently argued that although their platforms carry content, they are not publishers and are not directly accountable for it. Singapore's legislation could turn that on its head, forcing them to carry the burden and the cost of dealing with fake news, and creating a precedent that could be emulated elsewhere.

According to Tan, the change in the law of most concern to platform companies is that "the law does not treat them" as being intermediaries. "I wouldn't say that it treats them as a publisher, but it treats them akin to a publisher, in that they have responsibility for what appears on their platform," Tan said.

While Facebook and Google declined to comment directly, a statement by the Asia Internet Coalition said, "Prescriptive legislation should not be the first solution in addressing what is a highly nuanced and complex issue."

"We are also concerned that the proposed legislation gives the Singapore government full discretion over what is considered true or false," the statement added. "As the most far-reaching legislation of its kind to date, this level of overreach poses significant risks to freedom of expression and speech, and could have severe ramifications both in Singapore and around the world," the statement said.

"Twitter recognizes the importance of the Select Committee's work on 'Deliberate Online Falsehoods,' and we have appreciated the opportunity to engage with the Singapore government throughout this process," a spokesperson for the company said. "We only saw the law in its entirety for the first time [earlier this month], and our teams are still reviewing to assess its implications."

Civil society groups have also expressed concern that the law could have a chilling effect on free speech in Singapore. This Sunday a rare public protest against the proposed laws is set to take place, where organizers are calling on people to come and mourn the death of free speech.

And last weekend a group of 83 academics specializing in Asian studies signed letters to the government expressing concern at the scope of the proposed fake news laws.

"Just like other media laws in Singapore, the act itself does not reveal all of the government's teeth, because there are powers that will be left to subsidiary legislation," said Cherian George, a Singaporean academic and now professor of journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University, who is one of the signatories to the letter.

"What we need to watch out for is the likelihood that there will be subsidiary regulation that won't go through parliament that will impose additional obligations on mass media, including foreign publications that are influential in Singapore," George said.

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