SINGAPORE: Three Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) have proposed amendments to the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill first tabled in the House on Apr 1.
It is due for a second reading at a Parliament sitting next week.
The NMPs - Associate Professor Walter Theseira, Ms Anthea Ong and Ms Irene Quay - said in a public statement that while they agree with the legislative intent of the Bill, they are concerned that it "grants the Executive far-reaching powers to control online communications".
The Bill has provisions for the minister to issue corrections or take-down orders, if a falsehood affects the public interest. Those who disagree with the directive can appeal first to the minister, then to the courts for recourse.
Academics, non-governmental organisations and individuals in Singapore and globally have expressed misgivings about the proposed law.
"We share these concerns, as such tools could be used by the Executive and future governments to suppress or chill debate and expression for political purposes," the NMPs said in the statement shared on Tuesday.
"The question is: how do we mitigate such concerns, while ensuring that Government has the ability to deal with the full range of threats posed by deliberate online falsehoods?"
The trio noted that the speed with which online falsehoods spread and threaten public interest "cannot be addressed effectively by a slow judicial process" and requires "decisive executive action".
However they expressed concerns about the powers the Bill grants to the Executive, and also noted that the Bill contains "broadly worded clauses defining what is a false statement and what constitutes public interest".
Nevertheless, the NMPs said they decided not to proceed with proposals for amendment regarding these two items, saying instead that the issues of what constitutes a statement of fact and the definition of public interest would be better addressed with reference to a proposed clause that sets out key principles of the Act.
READ: Online falsehoods law will tackle attempts to 'manipulate opinions, influence elections': PM Lee
They proposed these amendments "after significant consideration and consultation with stakeholders" over three weeks:
- A clause that sets out key principles (“Principles of the Act”) that guide the exercise of powers under the Act including codifying the aim that the Act is targeted at statements that are materially false and not opinions, comments, critiques, satire, parody, generalisations or statements of experiences;
- Requirements that any Directions issued are publicly justified;
- Requirements that the appeals process is expedited; and
- The creation of an independent council to monitor online falsehoods and provide routine oversight on the use of executive powers under the Act, and whose members shall be appointed by a Select Committee of Parliament.
The Principles of Act codifies some of the explicit assurances that Government has given over the past few weeks, while reflecting concerns by researchers and civil society on how the Bill could chill criticism and research that is based on contentious facts, said the NMPs.
"We believe these amendments preserve the ability of the Executive to act against online falsehoods in the public interest, while ensuring that such decisions are subject to good governance," they added.
READ: Proposed law on falsehoods has ‘clear oversight mechanism’ to prevent abuse by Government, says Shanmugam
In a Facebook post on the proposed amendments, Dr Theseira said that they accept the Government's assurances that the Bill is not targeted at opinion and criticism.
"But these assurances may not bind a future Government because the Bill provides tremendous discretionary power, while not recording the Government's assurances in the text of the Bill itself. There is room for improvement," he added.
The NMPs' statement and the proposed amendments have been shared online.