SPEECH BY MR S ISWARAN, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION, AT SECOND READING FOR PROTECTION FROM ONLINE FALSEHOODS AND MANIPULATION BILL, 08 MAY 2019, 10.00 PM AT PARLIAMENT
Introduction & Background
- Mr Speaker, Sir, I rise in support of the Bill, standing with the Minister for Law. My views are informed by my Ministry’s and its agencies’ experience in administering current content related legislation, dealing with tech companies across a spectrum of issues, working with industries on the digitalisation of our economy, and nurturing digital readiness in our society.
- The digital information age has had a profound impact on our work, leisure and communication patterns. Let me illustrate.
- A recent MCI study found that while broadcast and print remain relevant, there has been a pronounced shift towards online news consumption. More than 96% of Singaporeans below the age of 50 regularly get their news from online sources. Similarly, and perhaps more starkly, 79% of Singaporeans in their 50s, and 63% of those in their 60s, use online news sources, compared to 35% and 10% just 5 years ago.
- Most consumers of online news typically access at least four or more digital sources. These sources are of varying reliability, ranging from the online version of mainstream media like CNA and the Straits Times, to international news media like CNN and BBC, and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Closed messaging services like WhatsApp and WeChat have also become prevalent with more than 50% of Singapore residents using them to communicate and share information.
- These trends will only gather pace and intensify, in tandem with the growing reach and accessibility of technology.
- Singaporeans are avid users of technology; our mobile population penetration rate, at about 150%, is among the highest in the world. As for internet broadband, the wireless penetration rate for our population is over 200%, and the wired household penetration rate is 93.5%. IMDA reported that there has been a doubling of mobile data consumption in Singapore between 2016 and 2018. Simply put, Singaporeans are highly connected and voracious consumers of data.
- Connectivity and data are also essential to our digital economy. From 2012 to 2016, Singapore’s cross-border data flows grew by 65% per annum to reach 24,000 gigabits per second, the highest per capita compared to other highly-digitalised economies. MTI’s Economic Survey of Singapore, in the 3Q 2017, reported that, between 2005 and 2015, our share of global merchandise trade remained stable at about 2%, but our share of the global trade in digitally-deliverable services nearly doubled from 3.5% to 6.5%.
- The major global technology companies, the FAANGs, have a significant presence in Singapore. We also have a vibrant news and media ecosystem – more than 60 media organisations are accredited in Singapore, and large media organisations, including BBC, Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters – have their regional offices in Singapore.
- So it is unambiguous and undeniable that the flow of data and information, like the flow of goods, services and capital, is vital to our economy and our society. And that is why, any suggestion that this Bill is aimed at curtailing the online flow of information, or that it will be used by Ministers to make arbitrary decisions, is wholly unfounded and completely off the mark. Any action to do so would be ill-advised and inimical to our interests. Why would any Minister want to put in jeopardy jobs for Singaporeans and opportunities for our businesses? That does not make good economics, nor good politics. Moreover, it would also be subject to intense scrutiny and called out by a highly connected citizenry, as well as the tech and media organisations who have a substantial presence in Singapore. So, we have an ecosystem that derives great value from our flow of information and data. And that ecosystem itself is going to be a natural check on our intentions or any over-reach.
- So what then is our intent? As Minister Shanmugam has explained in detail and Members of this House have agreed, this surge in the flow of information is a double-edged sword. It can be used to educate, foster understanding and build trust; it can also be abused to spread falsehoods, sow discord and harm society. At the same time, technology companies’ algorithms, policies, and design features have made it easier for echo chambers to be created and exploited.
- We face the most serious challenge in the digital realm because advances in technology have greatly increased the volume, speed, reach, and impact of online information flows. In the past decade alone, global cross-border data flows have risen by 64 times. A further threefold increase in internet traffic is forecast from 2017 to 2022, and global mobile data traffic will increase sevenfold.
- Against this backdrop, we need new modes of engagement with the digital information landscape to ensure that our citizens are well-informed and equipped to navigate the vast and diverse online terrain, discern truth from falsehood, engage in meaningful discourse and make informed choices.
Situating POFMA in our regulatory landscape
- Some members have asked how today’s tools fall short. Our present laws, which were mainly conceived in the era of print and broadcast media, were not designed to address the issue of online falsehoods. For example, there are powers under the Broadcasting Act, which regulates all broadcast content, IMDA can issue take down notices and block websites for public interest or security reasons. However, in administering the Act, IMDA has found these to be blunt tools. It would mean blocking an online platform for a single falsehood, which Mr Low Thia Khiang may think it’s alright, but runs completely contrary to our desire for proportionality and calibrated regulatory interventions.
- That is why this POFMA legislation is necessary. It is an essential and important addition to our regulatory architecture, that introduces a calibrated set of measures to deal with the virulence and virality of online falsehoods.
- The powers under the Bill range from targeted corrections, to general corrections and, ultimately, stop communications or “take down” directions. These powers, as have been emphasised several times, can be exercised only if firstly, there is a false statement of fact and, secondly, it is in the public interest, as defined in the Bill, to act.
- Within this spectrum of measures, our main preference is to issue correction directions. The merits of juxtaposing the facts with falsehoods should be self-evident. It will allow readers to make informed judgements, draw their own conclusions about the arguments being made, and promote a more vigorous online discourse. As we have explained, the Disabling and Stop Communication Directions will only be used in extreme cases where there is a threat of serious harm.
- Some have expressed concerns whether the powers under the proposed legislation will be used judiciously. And I would cite for Members’ reference, our experience with the Broadcasting Act about which there were similar concerns. Since the inception of the class licence scheme under the Broadcasting Act in 1996, IMDA has issued only 39 take-down notices. If you do the math, it’s slightly more than one per year on average. That is certainly not overreach.
Roles and responsibilities of Ministers under POFMA
- There has been much debate over who should wield the powers under the Bill. There are three main considerations behind the proposal in this Bill. First, as many have spoken, we need swift action against an online falsehoods given their virality and potential to cause harm. Secondly, and I think this is crucial, consequently, we need deep domain knowledge to expeditiously assess whether there is an online falsehood and if it is in the public interest to act. This is important especially as the online falsehood could occur in domains as diverse as healthcare, finance or security. And if in each of these cases we expect one singular authority to render a judgement in a timely manner, and take expeditious action, I think that is a very tall order. And finally, the third consideration is, there must be accountability for the exercise of these powers.
- I would argue that vesting the authority in Portfolio Ministers with the availability of judicial oversight, as proposed in the Bill, best meets all three considerations. The Minister, supported by his Ministry’s officials and resources, would have the requisite domain expertise to make an assessment and act quickly to stem the potential harm arising from an online falsehood. Accountability is ensured as aggrieved parties can take action in court against the Minister’s decision. She or He is also answerable in Parliament. Therefore, in assigning the powers under the Bill to Portfolio Ministers, the Bill appropriately and correctly locates authority with accountability, supported by the requisite knowledge and expertise to make swift decisions. This is essential when you are dealing with the virality of online falsehoods.
- I am therefore, somewhat surprised by the allegations of some Workers’ Party Members of Parliament, who suggest that this Bill allows Ministers to arbitrarily decide what is true, to impose penalties on individuals, and to suppress any commentaries. This is completely not the case, and let me break it down for you.
a. First, the primary focus of this Bill is not individuals per se, it is actually the larger tech platforms. But having said that, content often originates because of individual action. And therefore, you can’t completely exempt them from the focus of this Bill. So if you come across something online that is a falsehood, the Portfolio Minister has to decide if it is false, and if it is in the public interest to act against it. If so, he has to then decide to issue a Direction – whether it is a Correction or Take Down, depending on what is the appropriate course of action.
b. Picking up on the case made by Mr Low and other members of the Workers’ Party, the
individual then has a choice – you comply with the Direction or you disagree. And you
appeal to the Minister. If you apply to the Minister for either a cancellation or a variation, and the Minister decides that Direction is still valid, then the individual can appeal to the High Court within the prescribed period.
c. Now on the part of the Executive. If the individual does not comply with the direction, the Competent Authority may commence investigations for non-compliance with Direction under Section 15 of this Act. The reasonable excuse is a defence to the criminal offence of not complying with the Direction.
d. The outcome of the investigation will be presented to the public prosecutor in AGC for decision on prosecution. If the public prosecutor decides to proceed, the matter will be brought to the courts. The court will then decide on guilt and penalties.
e. So this process is one where there is very clear due process. I fail to see how one can jump to the conclusion that Ministers are judge and jury, or indeed exercising nuclear options.
Also, the courts decide on the penalties, not the Ministers. And the right to comment, and the right to free speech continues in the course of this process until and unless it is sub judice. In other words, the individual can, and other interested parties can continue to put up online commentaries to say that “I am the subject of POFMA action”.
f. So I fail to understand how this encroaches on the rights of the individual, and how it has this purported chilling effect that many members of the opposition claim. And certainly, given the safeguards in the due process that I have outlined, I don’t see how this can be seen as Ministers having excessive powers.
g. Mr Png Eng Huat also talked about the election period. I don’t know whether he has read Section 52 of the Act. That section provides for alternative authorities during the election period. So his entire speech about conflicts of interest in the election is addressed by that section. Because during the election period, Ministers from Ministries will appoint the Permanent Secretary or an equivalent senior official to act and exercise the authority.
- Ms Lim Sun Sun suggested that Ministers should nonetheless be guided by independent advisory panels. There is nothing in this Bill that constrains or prevents Ministers from consulting and seeking views from experts outside of their ministries, where necessary and the circumstances permit.
- In addition, certain powers such as those to block funding and access to online locations under Part 5 of the Bill are given only to the Minister for Communications and Information as these decisions have broader implications, beyond individual ministries, for internet users, the industry, and the digital infrastructure.
- Let me now turn to the Competent Authority. Under Section 6(1), the Minister may appoint a statutory board or senior official as the Competent Authority. Hence, to administer the Bill, we intend to establish a new POFMA Office within IMDA, which will be the Competent Authority. As enumerated in Section 6(2), a key function of the Competent Authority is to give effect to the instructions of the Ministers.
a. IMDA’s experience in administering the Broadcasting Act and other content regulation policies, and its regular interaction with media and tech companies, will be relevant to the administration of this Bill.
b. This POFMA Office will support the portfolio Ministers with technical advice on the
precedents, the types of levers available, their feasibility, and their effectiveness. The
Competent Authority will thus help provide consistency across Government in the
implementation of the Bill.
c. This office will also work with technology companies on the Codes of Practice, and monitor compliance with the directions and codes.
Upstream tools – Codes of Practice
- Apart from the measures in the proposed legislation, there is also a need to address issues upstream. Upstream safeguards like authenticity of users and transparency of advertising are issues that technology companies are also trying to address in different ways. The more we can work with technology companies on such upstream systems and processes, the less we will need to take action downstream. To that end, Clause 48 of the Bill empowers the Competent Authority to issue one or more Codes of Practice. These Codes will apply only to prescribed digital advertising and internet intermediaries, and we are now developing them in consultation with these intermediaries.
- The Codes aim to:
a. First, prevent and counter the misuse of online accounts, where malicious actors hide
behind online anonymity. Among other things, this will require intermediaries to use
reasonable verification measures to prevent inauthentic accounts or bots from being
created or used for malicious activities.
b. Second, these codes will enhance the transparency of political advertising Intermediaries will have to ensure that political advertisements disclose who is the source. This encompasses election advertising, and advertisements on issues of public interest or controversy in the Singapore context, including those pertaining to race or religion.
c. Third, the code of practice will also require de-prioritising online falsehoods [Rec. 17a]. This will ensure that credible content is given prominence and/or falsehoods are prevented from gaining prominence.
- Ms Joan Pereira asked how the Codes were being developed. The scope of these Codes of Practice takes reference from international norms including the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation, as well as consultations with companies and international experts. And all of these will inform the final formulation of the Codes of Practice.
- Implementation of the Codes by the Competent Authority will be targeted and graduated, and the focus will be on ensuring that intermediaries have adequate systems and processes in place. When breaches occur, the Competent Authority will consider factors such as the seriousness of the breach, whether there has been a pattern of similar breaches, whether it reflects systemic deficiency in processes, and whether intermediaries’ efforts to remedy the breaches are adequate. Engagement with Internet Intermediaries
- Some members have asked how this Bill will affect Singapore’s attractiveness as a technology hub and our relationship with tech companies.
- The technology companies are an important part of Singapore’s business ecosystem, especially our digital economy. Singapore’s value proposition to technology companies is anchored on several factors including our political stability, rule of law, conducive business environment, international connectivity, and skilled workforce.
- This is why the major technology companies have continued to expand their operations in Singapore in the past years. And we continue to have regular engagements with technology companies on a broad range of issues pertaining to investments, R&D, talent development, and other collaborations of mutual interests.
- With regard to this bill, our officials have been working with the technology companies that are most affected, to incorporate their comments and feedback, and where possible work together on solutions.
a. We have sought to incorporate their feedback into the main body of this Bill.
b. We are working with the technology companies to develop Codes of Practice.
c. The Competent Authority will work with intermediaries to develop company-specific
Annexes to the Codes. These Annexes will clarify how each intermediary will operationalise the broad outcomes, principles and objectives of the Codes, taking into account the unique features of each intermediary’s platform, its existing systems and measures to combat disinformation, technical capabilities, as well as effectiveness. In other words, some of these will have to be customised because of the nature of the different intermediaries and those will be captured in the Annexes to these Codes of Practice.
- The Competent Authority will regularly review the Codes of Practice and Annexes to ensure that they keep pace with developments in intermediaries’ platforms, technology, market environment and user behaviour and preferences.
- Ms Lim Sun Sun said that we should approach these tech companies under a ‘collaborative framework’. Where there are falsehoods that affect the public interest, defensive action should and must be taken and we need to have regulatory tools to deal with the problem. However, there is also scope for collaboration. That is why we have sought to deeply engage the tech companies throughout this process. Ms Irene Quay asked if we could consider legislative routes taken by other countries, where companies are tasked to proactively monitor and filter content.
- I would say in response that is neither necessary nor desirable. We do not want to outsource the responsibility for our national and public interest to private companies. Neither is it necessarily in the interest of the tech companies.
d. Faced with broad demands and heavy penalties, companies would be compelled to be
excessively cautious. It also increases compliance costs. For example, it has been reported that following the passing of the German law, one in six Facebook moderators is now based in Germany.
e. Left to independently interpret government objectives, companies would be accused also of being politicised and biased by their users. Since 2018, Twitter and Facebook have been dogged by accusations of ‘shadow-banning’ conservative opinions.
f. In contrast, our approach is for Ministers to assume the responsibility. They will issue
unambiguous and detailed directions for the companies to carry out.
- I want to turn to non-legislative measures. Mr Seah Kian Peng expressed quite eloquently yesterday whether we are asking too much of the proposed legislation but too little of ourselves. He raises a very important point. Even as we vigorously debate this Bill, let us not lose sight of the larger point – legislation is necessary but by no means sufficient in the fight against online falsehoods. Ultimately, our first and most important line of defence against online falsehoods is a well-informed and discerning citizenry, equipped with tools to combat online falsehoods.
- The Select Committee highlighted the role of trusted fact-checking initiatives in combatting deliberate online falsehoods, and recommended that different media organisations, and partners from other industries, consider establishing a coalition in Singapore to debunk falsehoods swiftly and credibly, as well as to provide support to such fact-checking initiatives.
- The Government agrees that it is important to have such fact-checking initiatives in society. However, such initiatives should go beyond fact-checking to ensure that discourse is authentic and responsible, and citizens are well-informed of the principles of engagement.
- Over time, through the collaborative efforts of different parties and agencies, we envisage a tighter nexus between the different entities including academia and journalists in Singapore so that high-quality information can reach the general public, to engender greater understanding of current affairs and complex issues.
- These efforts will also be aligned with the Government’s commitment to support the growth of a robust and vibrant information ecosystem, with a variety of entities contributing to the overall effort.
- To do so, we will continue to support ground-up efforts by interested members of community and student groups and invest in resources and efforts to build up digital literacy. There have been many community efforts already in this regard. Ms Joan Pereira and Ms Intan Mokhtar spoke about media literacy for the young, and digital literacy for the elderly.
g. Various Government agencies, such as the National Library Board, MOE and MINDEF,
provide information literacy resources to students, adults and seniors. The Government
also launched Digital Defence as the sixth pillar of Total Defence this year, with the call to be secure, alert and responsible online.
h. The Media Literacy Council runs the Better Internet Campaign and provides seed funding for youth-led initiatives to address digital literacy and cyber safety and security.
i. There are also collaborations among our local universities, tech companies and media
companies to enhance media and information literacy, such as the hackathon called “Fake News Must Die” was held in late 2017 supported by Google, our IHLs, and mainstream media.
- Over time and taken together, these measures will empower citizens to make informed decisions on their consumption of information, and be more discerning on multifaceted issues, thereby helping to grow an informed citizenry.
- Sir, let me conclude by emphasising a few key points. First, it is abundantly clear that we need a new and fit-for-purpose set of regulatory tools to deal with the challenge of online falsehoods in the digital age. This legislation is a pragmatic response to that challenge, providing for a set of calibrated measures.
- By vesting in Portfolio Ministers the authority to issue directives, and providing for judicial oversight, the Bill strikes the best possible balance between the needs for swift action, accountability for decisions, and the requisite domain expertise to make quick assessments.
- In drafting this legislation, we have engaged the tech companies and other stakeholders, and sought to incorporate their concerns where possible. We also continue to have constructive discussions with the tech industry on a broader range of issues of mutual interest.
- Ultimately, the scourge of online falsehoods is an ever present and evolving threat. That is why legislation is not enough. We need a concerted Whole-of-Nation effort, from citizens, industry, other stakeholders and Government. In particular, a well-informed and discerning citizenry is the first and most important line of defence against online falsehoods.
- And I hope that all Singaporeans will join us in this important effort, give their full support to the intent of this legislation, and the impact it seeks to have in raising the quality and integrity of discourse in the digital realm, and help to raise the digital readiness and strengthen the Digital Defence capabilities of our society.
Source: www.gov.sg Press Centre 8 May 2019