Processing of fake news cannot be left to technology platforms, says Minister S’pore

Singapore’s Law Minister said social media companies are hampering their business interests when dealing with fake news, stressing the need for a city-state law against online lies, which critics say stifles free speech.

K. Shanmugam, who spoke on Thursday in an interview broadcast at the upcoming Reuters conference on Tuesday, defended the new city-state law against fears such as Facebook that it is a censorship tool, and concerns by rights groups and others that it is being used for political gain.

He said the law is necessary because platforms that often host fake news have business models that rely on “eyeballs.”

The minister referred to the United States, where lawmakers criticized social media companies for allowing spreading misinformation about the US elections, especially before the US Capitol building was stormed last week.

“The trend has been on the side of internet platforms to say: Hey, it’s freedom of expression, there should be no regulation of it,” said Shanmujam, Singapore’s Home Minister.

“Let’s be honest, when social media platforms argue against it (regulation), they really put profit above principle.”

Shanmujam said there was a “consensus” developing across the world that tackling fake news could not be left to tech platforms, although he said it was still unclear how many countries would follow Singapore with regulatory actions.

The Asia Internet Alliance, a consortium of internet and technology companies, has called the Singapore False and Manipulation Act (POFMA) introduced in late 2019, “the far-reaching legislation of its kind so far.”

Government ministers are permitted to order news outlets, social media users, or platforms to transmit warnings that their pages or posts contain false data, and to include links to a government website to verify facts.

There are stricter procedures, fines, and even imprisonment for non-compliance.

When ordered to block access to the page last year, Facebook said it contradicted the government’s claim that the law was not a “censorship tool” and joined a rights group in saying it could harm freedom of expression in Singapore.

The government says the law only addresses lies and that legitimate criticism and freedom of expression are not affected.

The law has infected many government critics, opposition parties, and politicians in the run-up to the city-state elections in July last year, alarmed rights groups such as Amnesty International. The law has not been used since then.

“The fact that a number of them are opposition politicians suggests to you who engage in such behavior,” said Shanmujam, when asked about those who have committed a violation of the law.

He said that the reason for the law’s inactivity since the vote was “the absence of such statements.”

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