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By Lawrence D. Dietz, JD, MSS
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University

On April 1, 2019, Bill No. 10/2019 “Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill” had its first reading to the Singaporean government. According to the New York Times, the bill is supported by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s People’s Action Party (PAP).

Mr. Lee has been Singapore’s Prime Minister since 2004. The PAP maintains a supermajority in the Singaporean Parliament and won Singapore’s General Elections in 2006, 2011 and 2015.

Singaporean Government Known for Exercising Firm Control over Public Behavior

The Singaporean government has long been known to run a tight ship. There is the well-known chewing gum penalty, which is one year in jail and a $5,500 fine for having more than two packs of gum per person. Other penalties can be triggered by littering, urinating in elevators and not flushing the toilet.

The Prime Minister has defended the proposed fake news law in a number of venues — including a joint press conference — where he said, “This is the problem of fake news and deliberate false statement being proliferated online. It is a serious problem which confronts many countries.”

“Singapore is not the only one which has taken legislation on this issue,” the Prime Minister continued. “The French have done so, the Germans have done so. The Australians have just done so, something similar and very draconian. The British are also thinking of doing this as well. So Singapore had to do this and we had a long process…finally we have this bill and it will be debated in the house and I hope eventually it will become legislation.”

Proposed Fake News Law Causing Considerable Public Debate

The proposed law is generating quite a bit of concern. Privacy advocates are concerned because the law would give the Singaporean government the authority to determine what is and is not fake news, and to require websites to post corrections, take down content or block content. While there would be ultimate recourse to the courts, the suspected content would have to be taken down first.

The penalties for fake news are stiff, as stated in the bill:

Subject to subsection (3), a person who contravenes subsection (1) shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction —

(a) in the case of an individual, to a fine not exceeding $50,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years or to both; or

(b) in any other case, to a fine not exceeding $500,000.

(3) Where an inauthentic online account or a bot is used —

(a) to communicate in Singapore the statement mentioned in subsection (1); and

(b) for the purpose of accelerating such communication, the person who is guilty of an offence under that subsection shall be liable on conviction —

(c) in the case of an individual, to a fine not exceeding $100,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years or to both; or

(d) in any other case, to a fine not exceeding $1 million.”

There Are Fears that PAP Will Use Fake News Bill’s Power to Limit Free Speech

Singapore has held a number of elections since its founding, but the PAP has always been in power. The concern is that government will use their broad powers to limit legitimate expression of opinion and freedom of speech.

Singapore, however, is not the only country to deal with the problem of fake news via legislation. Australia and New Zealand have indicated that they will be using legislation as a way to minimize the leveraging of violent crimes, such as the distribution of shootings at religious institutions over social media platforms by extremists.

Other Countries Have Already Taken Action against Fake News Sources

Ironically enough, Russia enacted laws that criminalize the “disrespecting” of the state and spreading “fake news” online. According to the Moscow Times, “The legislation will establish punishments for spreading information that ‘exhibits blatant disrespect for the society, government, official government symbols, constitution or governmental bodies of Russia.’ Online news outlets and users that spread ‘fake news’ will face fines of up to 1.5 million rubles ($22,900) for repeat offenses. Insulting state symbols and the authorities, including Putin, will carry a fine of up to 300,000 rubles and 15 days in jail for repeat offenses.”

Similarly, the Asia-Pacific publication The Diplomat notes that, “On March 7, the Korea Communications Commission announced a series of plans for 2019, which included the introduction of a new law giving the South Korean government authority to shut down domestic operations of foreign internet-related companies that hold personal information of South Korean users, such as Google and Facebook.”

Disinformation from Fake News Is a Growing Area of Concern

There is no doubt that fake news is a growing area of concern. Accusations of Russian meddling into the U.S. presidential election are still ringing in our ears.

Details of the sophistication and scale of the Russian disinformation program are constantly emerging. While the U.S. Cyber Command is credited with countering foreign efforts to influence the U.S. midterm elections, fake news remains a worrisome problem.

Standards for Judging Fake News

If we consider fake news to be the equivalent of libel, consider that there are three elements involved in determining libel, each of which must be proven:

  1. The defendant made a false and defamatory statement concerning the plaintiff;
  2. The defendant made an unprivileged publication to a third party; and
  3. The publisher acted at least negligently in publishing the communication.

If you were to pursue legal action against an individual or organization in the U.S., this would be a civil matter between the parties, not a crime against the government. The ultimate decision as to whose facts were true would be made by a jury or a judge in the case of a trial without jury.

Will Freedom of Expression Online Be More Restricted in the Future?

Privacy advocates and others have rightly been concerned that even legislation about fake news can negatively impact freedom of expression. It seems clear that if a government such as Singapore is given broad latitude to determine what is ‘fake’ and what is real, this would limit freedom of expression.

However, at the same time, there are legitimate concerns such as those expressed by Australia and New Zealand. Social media is a powerful tool and it is not proper for extremist groups to use this tool to leverage their violent and illegal acts over the Internet.

Perhaps the appropriate balance will evolve over time through a combination of laws, litigation and common practice.

About the Author

Lawrence Dietz is an adjunct professor for the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University, specializing in teaching courses on military intelligence, intelligence and security. He is also an Attorney at Law in California and the District of Columbia; an Ombudsman and Outreach Director for the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve; a U.S. Army Colonel (Retired); and General Counsel and Managing Director, Information Security at TAL Global.

Lawrence holds a B.S. in business administration from Northeastern University, an MBA from Babson College and a Juris Doctorate from Suffolk University Law School. Other academic credentials include an M.S. in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College and an LLM in European Union Law from the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom.