SINGAPORE: Five months after it was passed in Parliament, Singapore’s new law aimed at combating the spread of deliberate online falsehoods came into effect on Wednesday (Oct 2).
This is according to a notice published a day earlier in the electronic Government Gazette, which was accompanied by others that laid out the subsidiary legislation of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) and a temporary exemption order to give some technology firms time to comply with the new requirements.
Under POFMA, which is aimed at protecting society from fake news that harms public interest, a falsehood is defined as “a statement of fact that is false or misleading”. It does not cover opinions, criticisms, satire or parody.
The new legislation gives ministers the power to decide whether something is a falsehood and, if it is in the public interest to do so, order a “competent authority” to take action. This includes issuing corrections to be run next to the false content or take-down orders in extreme cases.
During the process of public consultation and debate in Parliament, concerns were raised about whether POFMA could potentially give the Government too much power in determining falsehoods and the punishments, as well as having a “chilling effect” on free speech.
To that, Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam said there is a “clear oversight mechanism” in place to prevent possible abuse of power by the Government.
READ: Proposed law on falsehoods has ‘clear oversight mechanism’ to prevent abuse by Government, says Shanmugam
The new law states that a minister’s decision can be challenged in court and open to judicial review.
Addressing concerns about cost and time for appeals, Mr Shanmugam has also stressed that this process would be made fast and simple with costs kept “very low”.
According to the regulations and rules set out in the latest Government notices, a minister will have to explain why something is determined to be a falsehood as part of the requirements before directions, such as running a correction, can be issued.
It is also stated that the cost of filing an appeal will be S$200 and that there will be no hearing fees for the first three days.
As for ensuring a relatively fast process, the regulations stated that a minister must decide on whether “to vary or cancel” a direction within two working days.
A hearing date will be fixed within six working days after the appellant files the appeal with originating summons and supporting affidavit, and appears before a duty registrar to request for an urgent hearing.
Overall, this means that those who appeal can have the opportunity for the case to be heard in the High Court as soon as nine days after contesting a minister’s decision.
Meanwhile, various Internet and digital advertising intermediaries have been given time to “put in place the necessary arrangements and technological measures to enable them to comply with certain requirements of the Act”.
These include Google, Facebook, Twitter, Baidu and WeChat, stated an order on temporary exemptions.
Under POFMA, companies identified as Internet and digital advertising intermediaries will have to abide by codes of practice to prevent their platforms from being used to spread falsehoods.
A separate notice also released on Tuesday said the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) has been appointed as the “Competent Authority” with effect from Wednesday.
During the debate on the Bill, Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran said the Competent Authority will support portfolio ministers with technical advice on the precedents, the types of levers available, their feasibility, and their effectiveness to stem the potential harm arising from an online falsehood.
"The Competent Authority will thus help provide consistency across Government in the implementation of the Bill," he said.