Singapore's Edwin Tong: Key objective of laws curbing fake news is to stop its effect

The Parliamentary Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods at a public hearing in March 2018. — TODAY pic
The Parliamentary Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods at a public hearing in March 2018. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, Oct 29 — Although it is a challenge to prosecute perpetrators of fake news based overseas, the key objective of laws to combat online falsehoods should be to suppress their operations and prevent such fake news from circulating further, said Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong.

In its report on fake news released last month, the 10-member Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods proposed having laws to swiftly disrupt the spread and influence of false information.

These include giving the Government take-down and access-blocking powers to prevent falsehoods from going viral or to block its exposure in a matter of hours.

But challenges abound: For one, in the prosecution of perpetrators of online falsehoods based outside Singapore. There is a challenge to bring them here, said legal experts, since the evidence is based overseas and the co-operation with authorities abroad is needed.

Such challenges, however, are not new and apply to other transnational crimes, said Tong in an interview with TODAY.

“But not being able to easily apprehend the perpetrator (or) wrongdoer doesn’t mean you don’t have laws to prohibit that conduct and behaviour. More importantly, in the context of online falsehoods it is the effect that we want to stop,” he said.

“And the effect can be stopped without necessarily having apprehended the perpetrator, and we want the ability and the levers to do that. That’s what legislation seeks to achieve.”

The Internet is a tricky beast. Experts have also pointed out the difficulty in identifying the perpetrators peddling online falsehoods. State actors, for instance, are constantly improving their methods and can use sophisticated means to hide their tracks, they noted.

Then, there are those who might try to game the system.

Recently, the founder of socio political news site States Times Review Alex Tan told TODAY he is rebranding it as his “personal blog” days after announcing he will shut down the site. The content will remain the same, he added.

Tan made the move after analysing the committee’s report as the website could be outlawed under proposed new laws. But he maintained that it is a “legitimate website” that “fully abides (by) Australian laws”.

Articles published by States Times Review had been mentioned by the Singapore Government and experts as examples of misinformation.

Tong acknowledged that advancements in technology may make it harder to detect peddlers of fake news. But focusing on the effect of the problem, rather than the mechanism or platform used, could make laws “hopefully a lot more adaptable and a lot more future proof as well”, he said.

Legislation should be updated to keep up with the times, he said. “But whatever platform one chooses, if the information is false and is being put out there, then the legislation must be broad enough and effective enough to also cover that,” said Tong.

“So, you can call yourself a social media site, a blog, or you can just post an email and publicise it. If it’s false and has an intended outreach online, then that should be caught.”

Last year, the Court of Appeal had ruled in a 2-1 split decision that government agencies do not fall under the legal definition of “persons” in Section 15 of the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA). The provision allows the court to order the publisher of a false statement to bring the falsehood to readers’ attention.

The case involved comments made by the co-founder of a medical device firm, which were published on socio-political website The Online Citizen, over an alleged patent infringement involving the Ministry of Defence (Mindef).

Following the ruling, the Ministry of Law said the Government’s intent is to allow both natural persons as well as the Government and corporations to rely on Section 15 of POHA.

Asked whether there will be changes to POHA, Tong only said that laws are reviewed and updated to deal with changes in society.

Back then, the Workers’ Party (WP) had opposed amending POHA, saying that it should not be a tool for the Government to use against Singaporeans who express contrarian views.

Tong said freedom of speech does not give one the licence to propagate falsehoods.

“But on this, let’s not be presumptive. If there’s going to be an amendment at that stage, we can always look at it, and if WP or anyone else thinks it is not appropriate because it stifles freedom of speech, we can deal with it in Parliament.” — TODAY