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Iswaran lays out reasons why ministers should wield powers under fake-news laws

SINGAPORE — In deciding who should have the power to issue orders against falsehoods under the proposed fake news laws, there were three main considerations, Communications and Information Minister S Iswaran said.

Iswaran lays out reasons why ministers should wield powers under fake-news laws

Communications and Information Minister S Iswaran said that a new Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act Office would be set up under the Info-communications Media Development Authority to carry out instructions by ministers under the new laws, once they are passed.

SINGAPORE — In deciding who should have the power to issue orders against falsehoods under the proposed laws for fake news, there were three main considerations, Communications and Information Minister S Iswaran said.

The person or organisation

  • has to be able to take swift action against falsehoods that could go viral;

  • has deep domain knowledge to assess whether it is really a falsehood; and

  • has to be accountable for the exercise of these powers.

Vesting this authority in ministers, with the availability of judicial review, as proposed in the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, best meets all three considerations, he said.

Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday (May 8) during a debate on the Bill, Mr Iswaran noted that there has been much debate over who should wield the powers under the laws.

The Bill proposes to give all government ministers the power to issue a variety of orders, such as directing online news sites to publish corrections to falsehoods.

In extreme cases, they will be able to order the publisher to take down an article or order Internet service providers to disable user access to errant sites.

Ministers will also be able to issue general correction orders. That is, if a false statement has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the victim’s reputation, a third party such as the mainstream media can be ordered to publish a correction, to draw the public’s attention to the falsity of the statement or to a corrected statement.

Mr Iswaran argued that goverment ministers are best placed to exercise these powers.

“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,” he said.

Accountability is ensured as aggrieved parties can take action in court against the minister’s decision, and the minister is also answerable in Parliament, he added.

“Therefore, in assigning the powers under the Bill to portfolio ministers, the Bill correctly and — I humbly submit — appropriately locates authority with accountability, supported by the requisite knowledge and expertise to make expeditious decisions which is essential when you are dealing with the virality of online falsehoods.”

ADDITIONAL POWERS TO COMMS AND INFO MINISTER

Nominated MP Lim Sun Sun suggested during the debate that ministers be guided by independent advisory panels.

Mr Iswaran replied that there were no constraints on ministers from consulting or seeking expert views from outside their ministries.

In addition, he said, only the Minister for Communications and Information will be granted certain powers under the Bill, such as blocking funding and access to online locations. This is because the impact of these decisions would go beyond the individual ministries and extend to Internet users, the industry and digital infrastructure.

NEW OFFICE

Mr Iswaran added that a new Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) Office would be set up under the Info-communications Media Development Authority to carry out instructions by ministers under the new laws, once they are passed.

“The Pofma Office will support the portfolio ministers with technical advice on the precedents, the types of levers available, their feasibility and their effectiveness,” he said.

Mr Iswaran added that the office would help to ensure the consistent implementation of the laws.

The office would also issue codes of practice to prescribed digital advertising and Internet intermediaries, such as Facebook, to create a safer online environment.

The codes, which are being developed now in consultation with the intermediaries, will prevent and counter the misuse of online accounts and enhance the transparency of political advertising.

Some steps that intermediaries will have to take include using reasonable verification measures to prevent inauthentic accounts or bots from being created or used for malicious activities, and ensuring that political advertisements disclose their sources.

It would also require social media sites to give prominence to credible content over falsehoods.  

“The more we can work with technology companies on such upstream systems and processes, the less we will need to take action downstream,” Mr Iswaran said, adding that implementation of the codes would be “targeted and graduated”.

Related topics

Parliament fake news media internet

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