Following a year of escalating unhappiness over the social media platforms’ handling of privacy and political meddling, November saw Facebook take immediate action in response to a request from the Singapore government to add a correction to a post that contained false information.
This came just six months after the country, known affectionately by some as the “little red dot”, passed its Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA). It allows the government to issue directions to websites, social media platforms and other online content providers to correct or disable access to the content, at the discretion of the Minister. A person found guilty of doing this in Singapore could be fined heavily and face a prison sentence of up to five years.
The act made headlines around the world as a global first and notably just in time for the run-up to the next Singapore General Election which is expected to take place in early to mid-2020. Critics argue vehemently that it violated free speech and could threaten internet freedom, not just in Singapore, but outside its borders as well. Amnesty International said it would “give authorities unchecked powers to clamp down on online views of which it disapproves”. This move by the government draws attention to the lack of press freedom in Singapore, which is ranked 151st out of 180 countries in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index.
However, the Singapore government counter-argued that free speech “should not be affected by this bill”, adding that it was aimed only at tackling “falsehoods, bots, trolls and fake accounts”. Singapore said its new law was necessary to protect the fabric of its diverse society.
If nothing else, this first test run of POFMA in action has demonstrated that Facebook will comply where it is in contravention of a law. Facebook in a statement said it hopes the Singapore Government’s assurances that the law would not impact on free expression “will lead to a measured and transparent approach to implementation”.
While this is not something that our clients need to worry about, this “ripple” in a very small island city-state possibly sets the stage for an entire wave of change as governments around the world are fatigued with unmanageable intervention in their domestic affairs. Other countries like Australia and Fiji are following suit with their own series of anti-fake news or hate speech bills being fast-tracked through legislatures in response to specific events or media panic this year. One can only wait and see how this unfolds in the coming year ahead.