A Bill which seeks to introduce measures to tackle harmful content on online services accessible to users in Singapore was tabled in Parliament on 3 October 2022. The measures under the Online Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill (“Bill”) have been put together following extensive consultations with stakeholders including parents, youths, community group representatives, academics and the industry.
In its public consultation published on 13 July 2022 to seek feedback on proposed measures to enhance online safety for Singapore-based users of social media services, the Ministry of Communications and Information (“MCI”) observed that globally, there is widespread acceptance for the view that social media services distributing online content have a responsibility to keep their users safe from harm. For more information about the public consultation, please read our article titled “MCI seeks comments on proposed Code of Practice for Online Safety and Content Code for Social Media Services”. MCI has since released its response to the feedback received. Overall, respondents were supportive of the measures proposed by MCI.
Regulation of providers of online communication services
The Bill will introduce a new Part 10A in the Broadcasting Act 1994 to regulate providers of online communication services (“OCSs”) to Singapore end-users. The purpose of Part 10A is to ensure that such OCS providers:
- provide a safe online environment for Singapore end-users that promotes responsible online behaviour, deters objectionable online activity and prevents access to harmful content;
- place adequate priority on the protection of Singapore end-users who are children of different age groups from exposure to content which may be harmful to them; and
- are regulated in a manner that enables public interest considerations to be addressed.
OCSs are electronic services that allow users to access or communicate content via the Internet or deliver content to end-users. OCSs include services accessible by Singapore end-users which may be provided from outside Singapore, as well as such services provided in or from Singapore. Social media services (“SMSs”) are a type of OCS which will be specified in a new Schedule under the Broadcasting Act 1994 and be made subject to regulation under the new Part 10A.
There are two key parts to the regulatory approach:
- Requiring providers of OCSs with significant reach or impact to comply with Codes of Practice (“COPs”); and
- Dealing with egregious content on an OCS.
Compliance with Codes of Practice
The Info-communications Media Development Authority (“IMDA”) may designate an OCS with significant reach or impact in Singapore as a regulated online communication service (“ROCS”) and require providers of an ROCS to comply with COPs. The factors to be taken into account before an OCS is designated as an ROCS are: (a) the range of all OCSs provided to Singapore end-users, and (b) the extent and nature of the effect that the different types of OCSs have on the people and communities in Singapore.
The COPs may require ROCS providers to put in place measures on their services to mitigate the risks of danger to Singapore users from exposure to harmful content and provide accountability to their users on such measures. The COPs may cover the following:
- Appropriate systems or processes which ROCS providers will need to establish and apply to prevent Singapore end-users (particularly children of different age groups) from accessing content that presents a material risk of significant harm to them, and mitigate and manage the risks of danger to Singapore end-users (particularly children of different age groups) from content provided on its service. (Please click here for information on IMDA’s draft Code of Practice for Online Safety.)
- Practical guidance on what content presents a material risk of significant harm to Singapore end-users.
- Procedures which ROCS providers are required to follow to comply with the applicable COP. Such procedures may include: (i) undergoing audits to ascertain compliance, (ii) reporting to IMDA information about the measures taken to ensure Singapore end-users are able to use the regulated ROCS in a safe manner, and (iii) conducting risk assessments on the systemic risks brought about by the service and taking reasonable and effective measures aimed at mitigating those risks.
- Requirement for ROCS providers to collaborate or cooperate with any conduct of research into its ROCS by experts approved by IMDA. Such research would allow IMDA to understand the nature and level of the systemic risks in the ROCS and the evolution and severity of such risks.
Every ROCS provider has a duty to take all reasonably practicable steps to comply with the COP applicable to it. An ROCS provider which fails to do so may be ordered by IMDA to pay a financial penalty, or be directed to take steps to remedy the failure.
Dealing with egregious content on an OCS
If IMDA is satisfied that any egregious content provided on an OCS can be accessed by Singapore end-users, IMDA can issue directions to the OCS provider to deal with such content. However, such directions cannot be issued in respect of communications between two or more end-users that are of a private or domestic nature.
Egregious content includes content that advocates or instructs on suicide or self-harm, physical or sexual violence and terrorism, content depicting child sexual exploitation, content advocating conduct that results in a public health risk in Singapore, and content likely to cause racial and religious disharmony in Singapore.
If egregious content provided on an OCS is accessible by Singapore end-users, IMDA will be empowered to issue three types of directions to deal with such content:
- A direction to an OCS provider to disable access to the egregious content by Singapore end-users. This requires the OCS provider to ensure that the specified egregious content (for instance, a particular social media post) cannot be viewed by Singapore users.
- A direction to an OCS provider to stop delivery or communication of content so as to stop or reduce the communication, provision or access by Singapore end-users of egregious content on the OCS (for instance, to stop a social media account, group or channel which is communicating the egregious content from continuing to communicate to Singapore end-users).
- A direction to an Internet access service provider to stop access by Singapore end-users to content on an OCS where the OCS provider fails to comply with IMDA’s directions. This ensures that egregious content on the OCS would not be accessible by Singapore end-users.
Every provider of an OCS or an Internet access service to whom a direction has been issued has a duty to take all reasonably practicable steps to comply with the direction.