Proposed law against foreign interference introduced in Parliament, can order take down of ‘hostile’ information on social media
SINGAPORE: A proposed law to prevent, detect and disrupt the use of hostile information campaigns and local proxies by foreign entities intending to interfere in domestic politics was introduced by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in Parliament on Monday (Sep 13).
The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act will give the Minister for Home Affairs the power to take down content deemed to be part of a hostile information campaign, MHA said in a news release.
For instance, the minister can direct social media platforms to disclose information even before suspected hostile information campaign content is published, or require newspapers to publish a mandatory message about an imminent hostile information campaign even if they did not carry the offending content.
Prior to issuing these directions, the minister must suspect or have reason to believe that content has been or is planned to be communicated by or on behalf of a foreign principal; that there is information or material being published in Singapore as a result; and that it is in the public interest to issue the directions.
The directions are targeted at entities such as social media companies, electronic services like online messaging apps or search engines, Internet access providers, as well as people who own or run websites or blogs.
“These provisions do not apply to Singaporeans expressing their own views on political matters, unless they are agents of a foreign principal. Singaporeans have the right to discuss politics,” MHA said.
“Nor do they apply to foreign individuals or foreign publications reporting or commenting on Singapore politics, in an open, transparent and attributable way, even if their comments may be critical of Singapore or the Government.”
Why the need for this law
Foreign interference poses a serious threat to Singapore’s political sovereignty and national security, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said.
“During a hostile information campaign, hostile foreign actors can seek to mislead Singaporeans on political issues, stir up dissent and disharmony by playing up controversial issues such as race and religion, or seek to undermine confidence and trust in public institutions,” it said.
For example, when Singapore faced bilateral issues with “another country” in late 2018 and 2019, there was an “abnormal spike” in online comments critical of Singapore on social media, the ministry said.
“These posts, made by anonymous accounts, sought to create an artificial impression of opposition to Singapore’s positions.”
The Government has considered laws against foreign interference from as early as February 2019, when then-Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong referred Parliament to findings from the 2018 Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, which said that foreign state-linked disinformation efforts were likely already occurring in Singapore.
"The Select Committee had recommended that the Government consider measures to address both deliberate online falsehoods and also state-sponsored campaigns that threaten our national security,” Mr Tong said.
The Select Committee findings also led to the enactment of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), which Parliament passed in May 2019.
The regulatory measures in POFMA are comparable to those in the proposed Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, with similar methods of application and appeal. More than 70 POFMA orders have been issued since the law kicked in in October 2019.
MHA said there have been many instances in recent years where entities used social media and communications technologies to mount hostile information campaigns against other countries.
“These covert, coordinated and sophisticated online activities seek to advance the interests of the attacking country, for example by manipulating public opinion in the target country on domestic political issues, subverting its democratic institutions, polarising society, or influencing the outcome of domestic elections,” the ministry said.
For instance, the US intelligence community found that ahead of the 2020 US Presidential Elections, foreign actors established troll farms to amplify controversial domestic issues, and sought to promote or run down certain candidates.
There were also influence campaigns to discredit the US government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and spread skepticism of Western-developed vaccines.
Other countries that have introduced laws against foreign interference include India and France. The latter’s Information Manipulation Law allows a judge to issue a directive to platforms within 48 hours to remove or block content, or de-reference it from search engines.
MHA said Singapore’s proposed law will strengthen its ability to counter foreign interference, and ensure that “Singaporeans continue to make our own choices on how we should govern our country and live our lives”.
Some examples of hostile information campaigns include creating and using inauthentic accounts to spread messages aimed at stirring unrest and discontent among different local communities, and using bots on social media platforms or taking out advertisements to artificially boost the reach of these messages.
To counter these, the minister can issue directions that require a person or Internet intermediary to stop communicating hostile information campaign content. If these directions fail, the minister can order Internet service providers to block access to the content.
The minister can also require social media services, relevant electronic services and Internet service providers to take “practicable and technically feasible actions” to restrict the dissemination of additional hostile information campaign content.
Those who wish to appeal against these directions can apply to the minister to vary or cancel the direction.
If the minister declines, the person can appeal to a Reviewing Tribunal chaired by a sitting High Court judge and comprising two other people outside the Government. The tribunal can either dismiss the appeal or revoke the minister’s decision.
“The Government is proposing that such a tribunal hear appeals against hostile information campaign directions instead of having such appeals heard in open court, because sensitive intelligence with national security implications may be involved,” MHA said.
LOCAL PROXIES USED FOR FOREIGN INTERFERENCE
To mitigate the risk of local proxies being used for foreign interference, the proposed law will define individuals and entities directly involved in Singapore’s political processes as “politically significant persons” (PSPs).
This includes political parties, political office holders, Members of Parliament as well as election candidates and their election agents. They will be called defined PSPs.
Under the proposed law, defined PSPs must report single donations of S$10,000 or more from permissible donors, as well as multiple donations from the same donor that amount to S$10,000 and above in a year. They must also maintain a separate bank account to receive political donations, so that there are proper records of funds relating to their political activities.
They are not allowed to receive anonymous donations above S$5,000, enlist the help of a foreigner to volunteer for their political activities, nor disclose affiliations with any foreign entity.
Some of these provisions are imported from the Political Donations Act, which will be repealed to streamline laws that safeguard defined PSPs.
A competent authority appointed by the minister can also designate other individuals and entities as PSPs if their activities are directed towards a political end, and the competent authority assesses that it is in the public interest that countermeasures be applied. They will be called designated PSPs.
Designated PSPs must report single donations of S$10,000 or more from local and foreign donors, and disclose affiliations with foreign entities.
If there is an increased risk of foreign interference, the competent authority can issue designated PSPs with stiffer countermeasures to match that of defined PSPs.
The competent authority can also direct any PSP that publishes matters on political issues relating to Singapore, to disclose the particulars of any foreign author and/or foreign principal for whom or at whose direction the article or programme is published.
In addition, Singapore citizens who are members of foreign political or legislative bodies must declare their involvement as they could be exploited, MHA said.
Designated PSPs that wish to challenge their designation or stricter countermeasures imposed on them can apply for the competent authority to reconsider or appeal to the minister.
“The Minister for Home Affairs may consult an advisory body when he hears appeals regarding designation and stepped up countermeasures,” MHA added.
The proposed law will create offences for planning or conducting foreign interference through electronic communications activity, as well as for not complying with the directions issued.
For example, those convicted of not complying with a technical assistance direction, stop communication (end-user) direction or disgorgement direction could be jailed up to two years, fined up to S$20,000, or both. Entities could be fined a maximum of S$500,000.
FULL RANGE OF MEASURES TO COUNTER HOSTILE INFORMATION CAMPAIGNS
The first two directions can be issued before hostile information campaign content is communicated.
Technical assistance direction
The minister can issue this direction if he suspects that there are preparations or plans to undertake an online communication activity in Singapore by or on behalf of a foreign principal, and the minister is of the opinion that it is in the public interest to issue the direction.
It will compel social media services, relevant electronic services, Internet access services, or those who own or run websites or social media pages where suspicious content is carried, to disclose information required for the authorities to determine if the harmful communications activity is being undertaken by or on behalf of a foreign principal.
Account restriction direction
The minister can issue this direction if there is reason to believe that social media or relevant electronic service user accounts are being used, or being set up with the intent of being used for hostile information campaigns.
It will compel providers of these services to block content in these accounts from being viewed in Singapore.
Stop communication (end-user) direction
This will require the communicator to cease communication of specific hostile information campaign content to viewers in Singapore.
This will require Internet intermediaries to stop the communication of specific hostile information campaign content in Singapore.
Access blocking direction
This will require Internet service providers to block access to the hostile information campaign content.
Service restriction direction
This will require social media services, relevant electronic services and Internet service providers to take practicable and technically feasible actions to restrict the dissemination of hostile information campaign content. This could include disabling or limiting functions that allow content to become viral.
App removal direction
This will require an app distribution service to stop apps known to be used by foreign principals to conduct hostile information campaigns, from being downloaded in Singapore.
The direction can be issued if the app has previously been subject to at least one direction, except for the technical assistance direction or another app removal direction.
Proscribed online location
The minister can proscribe an online location that is a purveyor of hostile information content, once that online location has been the subject of at least one direction, excluding technical assistance directions. This includes websites created by foreign principals to publish such content against Singapore.
These locations must then declare themselves as such, and no one will be allowed to purchase advertisement space on these locations or on other websites that promote the locations.
The aim is to discredit and de-monetise these locations to stem their ability to mount further hostile information campaigns against Singapore.
This will require individuals and locally registered entities that have enabled or published harmful online content, to return money or material support accepted for the enabling or publishing of the information or materials of concern.
The money or support can be returned to the foreign principal – or those acting on behalf of the foreign principal – who provided the funding or support, or surrendered to a competent authority.
This will require various parties to carry a mandatory message from the Government, in a conspicuous and timely manner, to warn Singaporeans about a hostile information campaign.
There are four classes of this direction:
1) Class 1 requires the communicator to carry this message.
2) Class 2 requires social media services or relevant electronic services where hostile information campaign content is carried to do likewise.
3) Class 3 requires social media services, relevant electronic services, as well as telecommunication companies, newspapers and broadcasting licensees to carry a mandatory message if a hostile information campaign is afoot, even if the content has not been carried on their platform.
4) Class 4 requires the owner or operator of a proscribed online location to carry a message on the online location, so that Singaporeans accessing it are aware of its proscription.
FULL RANGE OF MEASURES TO COUNTER LOCAL PROXIES USED FOR FOREIGN INTERFERENCE
Countermeasures for defined PSPs
1) Report single donations of S$10,000 or more from permissible donors, and multiple donations from the same donor that amount to S$10,000 or more in a year.
2) Not allowed to receive anonymous donations beyond the cap of S$5,000 during the relevant period or in any calendar year.
3) Maintain a separate bank account to receive political donations, so that there are proper records of monies relating to their political activities.
4) Not allow foreigners to volunteer in their political activities.
5) Disclose affiliations with any foreign entity.
Countermeasures for designated PSPs
1) Report single donations of S$10,000 or more from local and foreign donors, and multiple donations from the same donor that amount to S$10,000 or more during the relevant period.
2) Disclose affiliations with foreign entities.
3) If there is an increased risk of foreign interference, the competent authority can issue stepped up countermeasures ranging from more disclosures or prohibitions to match that of defined PSPs, including:
- Only receive donations from permissible donors, and not allowed to receive anonymous donations beyond S$5,000 in a year.
- Maintain a separate bank account to receive political donations.
- Prohibit foreigners from holding leadership positions and/or membership in the organisation.
- Not to allow foreigners to volunteer in their political activities.
- Not to affiliate with foreign principals.
Disclose migration facilities
All PSPs will be required to declare if they have been granted migration facilities by foreign countries, even if they did not voluntarily claim or apply for these.
This is because immigration facilities, which confer tangible benefits or prestige, could make individuals beholden to a foreign country.
Disclose involvement with foreign political or legislative bodies
Singapore citizens who are members of foreign political or legislative bodies will be required to declare their involvement.
This is because foreign states might cultivate or exploit Singapore citizens to influence Singapore’s political processes through their involvement with these bodies.
Transparency on major donors
Any person or entity who has made donations of S$10,000 or more in a calendar year to political parties or entities that have been designated as PSPs, must disclose their donations to the competent authority.
This allows the Government to monitor large donations to these parties.
Disclose information on content contributors
The competent authority can direct any newspaper authorised under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, any media outlet licensed under the Broadcasting Act, or any PSP that publishes matters on political issues relating to Singapore, to disclose the particulars of any foreign author and/or foreign principal for whom or at whose direction the article or programme is published.
This disclosure must be done within the newspaper, news programme or online posting.
The competent authority will consider other means of regulating such entities, including other written laws such as Newspaper and Printing Presses Act and Broadcasting Act, before issuing this direction.