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Errant social media firms could be fined, blocked in S'pore under Bill to tackle harmful online content

SINGAPORE — In a bid to combat the scourge of egregious and harmful online content, a Bill was introduced into Parliament  on Monday (Oct 3) to give the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) powers such as blocking Singaporeans' access to errant social media services.

Errant social media firms could be fined, blocked in S'pore under Bill to tackle harmful online content
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  • A Bill has been introduced into Parliament to allow the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) to issue directions to block Singapore users from accessing harmful content on online communication services
  • If the service providers, such as social media platforms, fail to comply with these directions, IMDA may be able to block people from using their services entirely
  • The Bill is being introduced due to the prevalence of harmful online content, which remains a concern, especially among children, said the Ministry of Communications and Information
  • It will be debated in Parliament at a November sitting

SINGAPORE — In a bid to combat the scourge of egregious and harmful online content, a Bill was introduced into Parliament on Monday (Oct 3) to give the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) powers such as blocking Singaporeans' access to errant social media services.

The Online Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill, if passed, would give IMDA the power to issue directions to such services with "significant reach" to ensure they protect Singapore users from content on self-harm, child exploitation, sexual violence and terrorism.

The proposed law would also cover content likely to cause racial and religious disharmony in Singapore, among other categories, said the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) in introducing the Bill.

If the regulated online service providers fail to comply with these directions, the law would empower IMDA to block people in Singapore from having access to their services entirely. Errant firms could also be subject to fines.

The Bill, flagged earlier this year, is being introduced due to the prevalence of harmful online content, which "remains a concern, given the high level of digital penetration and pervasive usage of online services among Singapore users, including children", said MCI. 

For instance, a survey in January this year by the Sunlight Alliance for Action, a cross-sector alliance that tackles online dangers, found that almost half of the respondents had personally encountered harmful online content. 

Another survey in June by MCI found that respondents were most concerned with harms affecting children, with a high majority — 97 per cent — who felt that harmful online content can have at least a moderate impact on children and youths.

Sexual content, cyberbullying and violent content were the top three types of content that respondents felt the young needed to be protected from most, the survey showed. 

MCI added that the Bill was also proposed after extensive consultations with various stakeholders such as parents, youths and community group representatives, among others. 

PROPOSALS UNDER THE BILL

The Bill proposes to regulate online communication services by introducing a new part to the Broadcasting Act.

Online communication services are electronic services that allow users to access or communicate content via the internet or deliver content to end-users, and this includes social media platforms. 

The first part of the regulatory approach would be to require online communication services with "significant reach or impact in Singapore" to be regulated and comply with a code of practice. 

The code of practice may include: 

  • Ensuring that regulated online communication service providers establish and apply "appropriate systems or processes" to prevent Singapore users, particularly children, from accessing content that presents a material risk of significant harm
  • These providers must also mitigate and manage the risks of danger from content on its service to Singapore users
  • Procedures which these regulated providers are required to follow to comply with the applicable code of practice
  • Such procedures may include undergoing audits to ascertain compliance, and reporting to IMDA on the measures they have implemented to ensure safe use of their services, for instance 
  • A requirement for these regulated providers to collaborate or cooperate with conduct of research studies by experts approved by IMDA.
  • "Such research would allow IMDA to understand the nature and level of the systemic risks in the regulated online communication services and the evolution and severity of such risks," said MCI. 

Then, in the event that egregious content is accessible by Singapore users on an online communication service, the Bill also allows IMDA to deal with such content in three ways: 

  • A direction can be issued to an online communication service provider to ensure Singapore users have no access to the content on the service
  • A direction can be issued to an online communication service provider to ensure that a specified account — for instance, a social media account, group or channel — which is communicating the specified egregious content, cannot continue to communicate to Singapore users
  • A direction can be issued to the internet service provider to block access by Singapore users to the non-compliant online communication service if the service provider fails to comply with the IMDA’s directions
  • "This ensures that egregious content on the (online communication service) would not be accessible by Singapore users," said MCI. 

MCI added that failure to comply with the above directions could be an offence, which is punishable by a fine on conviction.

The ministry added that the Bill will "complement ongoing initiatives by the Government, working in partnership with community and industry stakeholders, to equip Singaporeans with the knowledge and skills to keep themselves and their loved ones safe online".

The Bill will be debated in Parliament at a sitting slated for November.

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MCI harmful content Parliament Social Media

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