SINGAPORE: Existing laws could have been amended to give many of the powers that the proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill would have, said Law Minister K Shanmugam, but this would mean giving Government broader powers and less judicial oversight.
Speaking during the second reading of the Bill on Tuesday (May 7), Mr Shanmugam said that current laws already criminalise the transmission of falsehoods, and allow for take-downs and corrections.
So why not rely on existing laws?
Mr Shanmugam said that after the Select Committee process looking into the issue of deliberate online falsehoods was completed, the decision was to have new legislation with a narrower set of powers than under existing legislation.
The intention is to focus on online falsehoods, and the remedies should be calibrated and provide greater judicial oversight over executive action, he added.
“(POFMA is) designed specifically for the Internet rather than rely on existing legislation and to deal specifically with online falsehoods rather than the broader areas that are under the Broadcasting Act,” the minister said.
That the Government already has broad powers was something highlighted by Senior Counsel Siraj Omar and corroborated by Ms Teo Wan Gek, the Press Secretary to the Law Minister, earlier this month.
The alternative would have been to rely on existing laws with “slight tweaks” and add-ons via subsidiary legislation, he said.
For instance, the Broadcasting Act as it is today can be relied on for actions such as correction, take-down and general correction directions, Mr Shanmugam said.
The same law could also impose demonetisation penalties to an extent, such as in Section 16 requiring the licensee to “take action with regard to the contents of programmes or advertisements or to broadcast standards as the authority considers necessary”, he pointed out.
Meanwhile, the current Class Licensing scheme can also be amended via subsidiary legislation to cover provision of content by individual publishers and clarify that Internet intermediaries like Facebook and Google are also covered, he added.
The Broadcasting Act would require a statutory amendment to include Internet intermediaries based outside of Singapore, said the minister.
“If we had taken that approach, the result would have been an instrument with none of the calibration that the Bill proposes or the extent of judicial oversight, which is also going to be made speedier under the current proposals,” Mr Shanmugam said.
READ: Proposed law on falsehoods has ‘clear oversight mechanism’ to prevent abuse by Government, says Shanmugam
“The (deliberate online falsehoods) Bill, on the other hand, was fashioned to deal specifically with falsehoods that can be spread online with incredible speed, in a targeted manner,” he said, adding this was also to address falsehoods “with speed, with proportionality and with the courts given greater powers”.
“That is why the Bill is preferable,” the minister said.