SINGAPORE: While telcos Singtel and StarHub said they oppose imposing new laws on network service providers (NSPs) to combat fake news, they wanted more legislation to cover tech companies like Facebook and Twitter.
The telcos said the Government has already implemented laws like the Broadcasting Act that enable authorities to order the taking down or blocking of certain material, but the same cannot be said for social media platforms.
“An extension of such similar Governmental and/or court powers may be necessary against unlicensed or foreign digital platform owners such as Facebook, Twitter and Google,” Singtel said in its written representation to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods (DOFs).
"We’ve publicly said there needs to be a level playing field between operators in Singapore and those outside of Singapore who provide services to Singaporeans," StarHub regulatory head Tim Goodchild said when he appeared before the Select Committee on Thursday (Mar 22), referring to legislation.
The committee is studying how Singapore can prevent and combat deliberate online falsehoods, including implementing specific measures like legislation.
Furthermore, the telcos said they do not have the means to remove DOFs that spread on social media.
"DOFs tend to propagate on social media websites so when an order is given (that) relates to a certain Twitter link or Facebook page, actually we have no ability to block that," explained Mr Sean Slattery, Singtel's vice president, regulatory and interconnect.
Telcos would only be able to block access to the entire social media website, he added.
"So in order to properly address DOFs, there would need to be some sort of new legislation or enhancement such that those platform operators have an obligation to take down those particular pages or content."
In addition, there are limitations to blocking sites that spread fake news, the telcos said. For example, StarHub pointed out that users can still use Virtual Private Networks to circumvent site blocking.
“There is a cost to Internet service providers (ISPs) in implementing site blocking (in terms of setting-up and maintaining that block), and there are system limits on the number of sites that can be blocked,” it wrote.
To that end, Singtel said the cost of addressing the abuse of deliberate online falsehoods should be “borne by the enforcer of such rights”.
“For example, if public authorities or commercial enterprises require Singtel to block or investigate certain online falsehoods, then (they) should reasonably bear Singtel’s costs involved in effecting such orders,” it explained.
When asked why it was not possible for NSPs to play the same role as tech companies when it comes to battling fake news, the telcos said they are not privy to the content that users consume.
"As an access provider, the data that comes through our network effectively is anonymous to us," Mr Slattery explained. "We purely provide the carriage so customers at home can login with the World Wide Web and access certain sites."
Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter also secure and encrypt their content, he added, meaning telcos are unable to see beyond the content URL.
When asked for a response to the tech companies' position that they will not arbitrate on content, the telcos took a clear stand.
"Because they are a platform that reaches billions of people, and if they claim that they want to be socially responsible, they do have an obligation to contain DOFs being spread," said Mr Yuen Kuan Moon, Singtel chief executive, consumer Singapore.
Mr Goodchild said if new legislation is introduced, it would be a matter of them complying with the law and not "exercising their conscience".
PUBLIC EDUCATION PART OF MULTI-PRONG APPROACH
Meanwhile, the telcos suggested education as one effective way of tackling misinformation.
SingTel said the Government needs to educate the public on the harms of falsehoods and how they can assess whether a piece of news is accurate or disingenuous.
“Given the vast amounts of information generated online and the reliance on digital technology and the Internet, relying on intermediaries like platform providers, ISPs to act as vanguards would not be completely effective,” it wrote.
StarHub stated that the “most effective counter” to online falsehoods are users “equipped with critical reasoning skills”. “Educated media consumers are likely to be far more effective in assessing the credibility of a news source than any automated filtering system,” it wrote.
To that end, StarHub encouraged the Government to consider a review of the resources it provides the Media Literacy Council, which teaches the public how to evaluate online content, and whether the council needs to prioritise education on deliberate online falsehoods.
Increasing media literacy is “likely to be more effective in the longer-term than any technical or regulatory measures that could be implemented”, it wrote.
Nevertheless, the telcos said public education is just one approach, given the speed at which fake news can propagate.
"Definitely, some false news seem to be more attractive and spread a lot faster than the truth, and I think just by addressing it through education will not be sufficient," Mr Yuen said.