SINGAPORE: By giving portfolio ministers the authority to "issue directives" in relation to fake news, with scope for judicial oversight, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation (POFMA) Bill will be able to strike the best balance between swift action and accountability, Communications and Information Minister S Iswaran said on Wednesday (May 8).
Speaking in Parliament at the second reading for the Bill, Mr Iswaran's comments follow the Workers' Party's assertions that the responsibility as arbiters of truth should not lie with ministers, but rest instead on the judiciary.
In his speech, Mr Iswaran identified several roles and responsibilities that ministers will have under POFMA.
The first is that the minister, supported by his ministry’s officials and resources, would have the requisite domain expertise to make an assessment and act quickly to stem the potential harm arising from an online falsehood.
He added that accountability is ensured as aggrieved parties can take action in court against the minister’s decision, with the minister also answerable in Parliament.
"Therefore, in assigning the powers under the Bill to portfolio ministers, the Bill, I humbly submit, appropriately and correctly locates authority with accountability, supported by the requisite knowledge and expertise to make expeditious decisions, which is essential when you're dealing with the virality of online falsehoods," said Mr Iswaran.
Responding to calls that ministers should be guided by independent advisory panels, Mr Iswaran noted that the Bill does not constrain or prevent them from "consulting and seeking views from experts outside of their ministries, where the necessary circumstances permit".
He also said that the power to block funding and access to online locations in the event of online falsehoods is given only to the Communications and Information Minister because "these decisions have broader implications, beyond individual ministries, for Internet users, the industry and the digital infrastructure".
"There are three main considerations behind the proposal in this Bill. First, as many have spoken, we need swift action against an online falsehood given their virality and potential to cause harm. Secondly, and I think this is crucial, consequently, we need deep domain knowledge to expeditiously assess whether there is an online falsehood and if it is in the public interest to act," Mr Iswaran said.
"This is important especially because online falsehoods can occur in domains as diverse as healthcare, finance or security. And if each of these cases we expect one singular authority to render a judgment in a timely manner and take expeditious action, I think that is a very tall order. And finally, the third consideration is there must be accountability for the exercise of these powers."
He added: "By vesting in portfolio ministers the authority to issue directives, and providing for judicial oversight, the Bill strikes the best possible balance between the needs for swift action, accountability for decisions, and the requisite domain expertise to make quick assessments."
ESTABLISHING A POFMA OFFICE
Mr Iswaran said that the Ministry for Communications and Information intends to establish a new POFMA Office within the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA).
It will support portfolio ministers with technical advice on the precedents, the types of levers available, their feasibility, and their effectiveness.
"The Competent Authority will thus help provide consistency across Government in the implementation of the Bill," he said.
Mr Iswaran added that the POFMA Office will work with technology companies on the codes of practice and monitor their compliance.
"Among other things, this will require intermediaries to use reasonable verification measures to prevent inauthentic accounts or bots from being created or used for malicious activities," elaborated Mr Iswaran.
Implementation of the codes by the Competent Authority will be targeted and graduated, and the focus will be on ensuring that intermediaries have adequate systems and processes in place, the minister said.
"When breaches occur, the Competent Authority will consider factors such as the seriousness of the breach, whether there has been a pattern of similar breaches, whether it reflects systemic deficiency in processes, and whether intermediaries’ efforts to remedy the breaches are adequate," said Mr Iswaran.
SINGAPORE TO REMAIN A TECH HUB
Responding to concerns raised by other Members of Parliament that the Bill could affect Singapore’s attractiveness as a technology hub, Mr Iswaran said that technology firms "are an important part of Singapore’s business ecosystem, especially in our digital economy".
Citing Singapore’s political stability, rule of law, conducive business environment, international connectivity, and skilled workforce, he attributed these reasons to the continued expansion of major tech firms here in the past several years.
“We continue to have regular engagements with technology companies on a broad range of issues pertaining to investments, research and development, talent development, and other collaborations on areas of mutual interests,” added Mr Iswaran.
He said the Government had taken onboard comments and feedback from tech companies on the Bill.
"Where there are falsehoods that affect the public interest, defensive action should and must be taken and we need to have regulatory tools to deal with the problem. However, there is also scope for collaboration. And that is why we have sought to deeply engage the tech companies throughout this process," added Mr Iswaran.
He said legislation is necessary but not sufficient in the fight against online falsehoods.
"Ultimately, our first and most important line of defence against online falsehoods is a well-informed and discerning citizenry, equipped with the tools to combat online falsehoods," Mr Iswaran said.
To that end, he said the Government will support initiatives such as fact-checking and efforts to build digital literacy.