27 June 2019
On 8 May 2019, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (“Bill”) was passed in Parliament. The Bill aims primarily to prevent the electronic communication of false statements of fact (“falsehoods”) in Singapore and enable measures to be taken to counteract the effects of such communication. The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (“POFMA”) has since been gazetted on 25 June 2019 but the changes are not yet in force.
Key points to note about POFMA:
- New POFMA Office: A new Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act Office (“POFMA Office”) within the Info-communications Media Development Authority (“IMDA”) will be established as the competent authority to administer POFMA (when in force).
- Primary offence relating to communication of falsehoods in Singapore: It is an offence to do any act (whether in or outside Singapore) to communicate in Singapore a statement, knowing or having reason to believe that such statement (1) is a falsehood and (2) its communication is likely to lead to public interest concerns. POFMA provides for enhanced punishments in certain circumstances such as if an inauthentic online account or a bot is used in the communication to amplify the falsehood.
- Issuance of directions against falsehoods: Any Minister in Singapore will be empowered to issue a range of directions against falsehoods where it is in the public interest to do so. These directions include requiring the person who communicated the falsehood to put up a correction notice or stop communicating the falsehood by a specified time, or asking an internet intermediary or a provider of mass media services to put up correction notices or disable access to falsehoods. However, only the Minister for Communications and Information is empowered to make various orders, including blocking funding and access to online locations. Non-compliance with the directions is an offence and the Minister for Communications and Information may, in the event of such non-compliance, direct IMDA to order the relevant internet access service provider to take reasonable steps to disable access by end-users in Singapore to the relevant online location.
- Correction directions preferred with disabling and stop communication directions issued only in extreme cases: Within the spectrum of measures, the main preference is to issue correction directions. The disabling and stop communication directions will only be used in extreme cases where there is a threat of serious harm.
- Right to apply to Minister and appeal to High Court: The person against whom a direction has been issued can apply to the Minister for either a cancellation or a variation of the direction. If the Minister decides that the direction is still valid, there is still a right to appeal to the High Court within the prescribed period. Neither the application to the Minister nor subsequent appeal to the High Court automatically operates as a stay of the relevant direction.
- Timing and fees for appeal: A person aggrieved by a direction will have the opportunity to have his or her case heard in the High Court as early as nine days after he initiates a challenge by writing to the Minister. Court fees will be kept very low for individuals, with no hearing fees charged for the first three days. Subsequent days of hearing will be charged at the usual rate. Notwithstanding this, the court will have power to waive the fees. Further details will be provided in the subsidiary legislation to POFMA.
- Codes of Practice developed in consultation with intermediaries: The POFMA Office is empowered to issue Codes of Practice which will apply only to prescribed digital advertising and internet intermediaries. The Codes of Practice are being developed in consultation with these intermediaries. The scope of these Codes of Practice takes reference from international norms including the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation, as well as consultations with companies and international experts. The POFMA Office will also work with these intermediaries to develop customised, company-specific Annexes to the Codes of Practice. These Annexes will clarify how each intermediary will operationalise the broad outcomes, principles and objectives of the Codes of Practice, taking into account the unique features of each intermediary’s platform, its existing systems and measures to combat disinformation, technical capabilities, as well as effectiveness.
POFMA is part of a multi-pronged, whole-of-nation response recommended by the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods - Causes, Consequences and Countermeasures (“Select Committee”) to disrupt online falsehoods. By way of background, the Select Committee was appointed by Parliament in January 2018 to study the problem of deliberate online falsehoods and to recommend how Singapore should respond. Chaired by Deputy Speaker of Parliament Mr Charles Chong, the Select Committee was made up of nine Members of Parliament including the current Senior Minister of State for Law and Health, Mr Edwin Tong, SC who was a Partner of Allen & Gledhill during the Select Committee hearings. Allen & Gledhill Partner and Head of Intellectual Property Practice, Dr Stanley Lai, SC also gave evidence before the Select Committee.
Online falsehoods affecting private persons and doxxing to be dealt with under Protection from Harassment Act
For online falsehoods affecting private persons (both individuals and entities) and doxxing, amendments to the Protection from Harassment Act (“POHA”) were passed in Parliament on 7 May 2019 to strengthen remedies and improve the speed of recourse. The amendments to POHA will come into force on a date to be specified and will include the following:
- Enhancing existing powers to address spread of online falsehoods: The court will be empowered to make both final and interim orders in cases involving falsehoods. Measures that may be taken under the amended POHA in relation to falsehoods (e.g. stop publication orders, correction orders, disabling orders, targeted correction orders or general correction orders) will be available to individuals as well as entities (companies, associations, corporate or unincorporated bodies of persons).The courts may also make interim orders to provide urgent relief to victims.
- New offence of doxxing: It will be an offence to publish identity information of a victim (an individual) with the intention to cause harassment, alarm or distress to the victim (“doxxing”). Identity information is defined as information that, on its own or with other information, identifies, or purports to identify, the victim. This includes photographs, contact details, address and place of employment. Any publication that is made with the intention to place any victim in fear of violence or facilitate the use of unlawful violence against a victim is also an offence. The amendments to POHA provides that, in addition to an individual, an entity shall not make any threatening, abusiveor insulting communication with the intent to cause (or potentially cause) harassment, alarm or distress to another person.
- New Protection from Harassment Courts: The Protection from Harassment Courts will be established under the amendments to the POHA. Individuals and entities will be able to obtain from the Protection from Harassment Courts remedies and enforcement measures against contraventions.
- Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill
- Second Reading Speech by Mr S Iswaran, Minister for Communications and Information on Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill
- Protection from Harassment (Amendment) Bill
- Second Reading Speech by Senior Minister of State for Law, Mr Edwin Tong on Protection from Harassment (Amendment) Bill