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Singapore’s Fake News Act: Lessons for India

Brig. Ashish Chhibbar is Senior Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • May 17, 2019

    Singapore passed the Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulation Act (POFMA) 2019 on 8 May 2019. Consisting of nine parts and 62 sections, the Act immediately drew the world’s attention and bouquets and brickbats flew in thick and fast. Irrespective of whether the act will deliver or not, the Singapore government, faced with a daunting and complex problem, decided to act.

    Fake news and misinformation campaigns has been a hot topic of debate during the last couple of years. The revelations by Christopher Wylie in March 2018 concerning the role of Cambridge Analytica in harvesting millions of Facebook users’ data to create sophisticated psychological and political profiles for manufacturing targeted political advertisements during the 2016 US presidential elections opened a can of worms. This led to the firm being investigated in the US as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and in the UK by both the Electoral Commission for its role in the EU referendum and by the Information Commissioner’s office for carrying out data analytics for political purposes. 

    India too has its fair share of problems resulting from propagation of fake news through social media platforms. Due to a slew of measures enforced by the Indian government on social media and other Information and Communication Technology (ICT) companies, there has been a significant drop in the number of internet platform-fuelled, mob-related violence post July 2018. As of January 2019, India has 310 million active social media users with a relatively poor penetration of 23 per cent. Yet, Indians are the world’s largest users of Facebook and YouTube, with the social media community in the country growing at an astonishing 24 per cent year-on-year. It is but natural that activities carried out on social media platforms in cyberspace would tend to translate into physical acts. It is in the best interests of the country not to allow social media and other new generation cyberspace platforms to become mediums for carrying out illegal activities, spreading hate, inciting violence and carrying out targeted political campaigning to influence the democratic process.

    Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulation Act (POFMA) 2019

    Singapore has enacted POFMA for four main reasons. Firstly, to prevent the communication of false statements of fact and enable measures to counteract the effects of such communication. Secondly, to supress the financing, promotion and support of online locations in Singapore that repeatedly communicate false statements of facts. Thirdly, to enable measures to be taken to detect, control and safeguard against coordinated inauthentic behaviour and other misuse of online accounts and bots. And lastly, to enable measures to be taken to enhance the disclosure of information concerning paid content directed towards a political end.

    One of the challenges facing the world community is regarding the classification of a piece of information or news being spread on cyberspace as hateful or fake. It is not clear as to when such news is to be considered an innocent prank or a law and order problem or a threat to national security. POFMA attempts to resolve this dilemma. Article 7, Part 2 of the act states that a piece of news is deemed to be fake and worthy of action if and only if it meets two criteria. Firstly, it should be a false statement of fact. And secondly, communication of this false news is likely to affect the security of Singapore or be prejudicial to public health, safety, tranquillity or finances or be prejudicial to Singapore’s relations with other countries or influence the outcome of elections or incite feelings of hatred, enmity/ ill will or diminish public confidence in the state or its institutions. Article 10 of Part 3 of the act makes any Minister in the Singapore government competent to classify news as fake and take appropriate action to deal with such news.

    Article 11 of Part 3 concerns communicating a “Correction Direction”. A Correction Direction can be issued to a person to communicate a Correction Notice (Statement nullifying a false information and inserting a corresponding true statement and/or its link next to the false statement) within a specified time limit to all persons who have received the false information and/or publish the correction notice in a newspaper or other print publications of Singapore. Article 12 of Part 3 empowers the Competent Authority to issue a “Stop Communication” direction, and Article 16 of Part 3 empowers the Minister to direct the Information Communication Media Development Authority (IMDA) to order the internet access service provider to disable access to an online location for all end users by issuing an “Access Blocking Order”.

    An Internet Intermediary has been classified as a person providing internet intermediary services (like social networking services, search engine, content aggregator, internet based messaging service, video sharing services, etc.). Part 4 of POFMA deals with directions to internet intermediaries and providers of mass media services.  Article 21 talks of “Targeted Correction Direction” wherein the internet intermediary that has been used as a medium to propagate the false information is required to send a correction notice within a specified time limit to all the end users in Singapore who had accessed the false information. In addition, Article 22 deals with the issuance of “Disabling Directions” by the internet intermediary to stop access to the end user in Singapore of a specified false information while Article 28 deals with “Access Blocking Order”. 

    Part 5 of the act deals with Declaration of online locations. Such a Declaration happens “when an online location is responsible for propagating three or more different false statements subject to active Part 3 and/or Part 4 directions”. Once an online location has been “Declared”, its owner is thereafter required to inform its declaration status to all end users who access that online location. Suitable directions can also be passed to IMDA to block access to the declared online location for a specified period of time.

    Part 6 of the act deals with directions to the internet intermediary to counteract inauthentic online accounts and coordinated inauthentic behaviour. Part 7 of the act deals with Other Measures, while Part 8 specifies the appointment of alternate authority during elections and other specific periods. The final Part 9 of the act deals with miscellaneous issues.

    Reactions to POFMA 2019

    POFMA 2019 generated a lot of heat and mixed reactions from the general public, media houses and the ICT industry. The major points in favour of the bill were that, as compared to the Broadcasting act, which gave sweeping powers to the government, POFMA provides a measured and calibrated approach with the affected party given the right to appeal at every step. It provides greater oversight to the courts and makes a clear distinction between “opinion” and “fact”. It defines a “statement of fact” as “a reasonable person seeing, hearing or otherwise perceiving it would consider to be a representation of fact”. Publication of the correction notice along with the false statement of fact by the concerned person/ internet intermediary will result in greater authentication of online statements and lead to the eradication of false content.

    Google, in its response to POFMA, said that the new law could hurt innovation, which is a crucial element in the hi-tech sector. Some tech firms, media houses and activists are of the opinion that POFMA could be used to curb freedom of speech and be a major impediment to a free internet. The process of appeal was also considered to be very lengthy and cumbersome. On the other hand, Singapore’s law and home affairs minister K. Shanmugam said that the law was necessary as tech companies could not be relied upon to regulate themselves.

    Having an internet which identifies and detects fake news and unlawful content and stops its propagation is in the interest of all. However, the challenge lies in effective implementation. Empowering multiple ministers to decide whether a particular statement of fact is true or false and in the public interest is not likely to be conducive for administrative efficiency. For its part, the judiciary may not be able to ensure the quick dispensation of justice since the number of cases coming in for appeal are bound to be many initially. Informing each and every end user who has received a false statement would place additional resource burdens on the internet intermediary as it would be mandatory to track the origin and distribution of each and every message which originates on its platform.

    All false statements which are originated and propagated on the internet need not result in any or substantial impact on the ground. The propagation speed of the message or its ability to go “viral” plays a major role in determining whether a message has sizeable traction amongst the population. This aspect has not been considered in POFMA.

    Another important aspect of internet-based messaging is end-to-end encryption. A number of messaging services such as WhatsApp and Telegram have proclaimed that they use highly secure end-to-end encryption, with the private key being stored only in the end-users’ smartphones or terminals. Telegram has a bounty of USD 300,000 for anyone who can decrypt its encryption. In such a scenario, the detection of a false statement can only happen once someone approaches the law enforcement agency with the message. This would provide only a limited time for the agencies to act.

    Lessons for India

    By implementing POFMA, Singapore has demonstrated a resolve to fight the growing spread of false news and misinformation campaigns. There are a number of important takeaways for India from this experiment. Firstly, there is a need to acknowledge the role of social media and other ICT companies as important stakeholders in ensuring national security, and their expertise and skill set need to be optimally utilised for the same. Secondly, adequate provisions exist in the IT (Amendment) Act 2008 for monitoring and blocking internet sites and services. A proactive approach with the help of ICT companies can help in identifying messages and posts which are going viral and further analytics of these can assist in segregating messages that are likely to result in the commitment of illegal acts. Restricting the number of forwards has been a major step in this direction as it helps in slowing down message propagation. Thirdly, cyber education of our population in detecting and making considered decisions with respect to false statements will reduce the appeal and spread of such messages. Fourthly, all messages which are being originated and propagated on the internet needs to be uniquely identified and tracked so that the anonymity of the message originator, recipient and propagator can be removed and this would in turn lead to a more responsible user behaviour. Fifthly, prompt and exemplary action needs to be taken against persons and organisations resorting to the spread of false messages both within and outside the country. Lastly, collaborative and cooperative partnership needs to be forged with likeminded countries to identify the origin of misinformation campaigns and initiating counter measures against the perpetrators. The recent signing of the “Christchurch Call to Action” declaration by India is a step in the right direction.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.