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Online platforms, social media firms may be ordered to block access to harmful content under new Bill

As part of the proposed measures, social media services will also need to put in place system-wide measures to limit Singapore users' exposure to harmful content.

Online platforms, social media firms may be ordered to block access to harmful content under new Bill

Photo illustration of a child using a laptop. (Photo: CNA/Gaya Chandramohan)

SINGAPORE: Social media platforms may soon have to comply with a code of practice to tackle harmful online content accessible in Singapore, after the introduction of a Bill in Parliament on Monday (Oct 3).

If enacted, the Bill will empower the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) to designate online communication services that have "significant reach or impact", and require them to mitigate the risks of being exposed to harmful content.

The Online Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill will also empower IMDA to issue directions to deal with "egregious content", according to a media factsheet from the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI).

Egregious content includes content advocating suicide or self-harm, physical or sexual violence and terrorism, content depicting child sexual exploitation, content posing a public health risk in Singapore, and content likely to cause racial and religious disharmony in Singapore.

In March, Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo announced that the Government was looking at introducing measures to ensure a safer online environment, including for children. MCI launched a public consultation on its proposals in July.

On Monday, MCI said that while some online services have made efforts to address harmful content, the prevalence of such content remained a concern given the "high level of digital penetration and pervasive usage of online services" in Singapore, including among children.

A January survey by the Sunlight Alliance for Action to tackle online harms found that almost half of the respondents had personally encountered harmful online content, the ministry said.

MCI also cited another survey it conducted in June, which found that almost all respondents felt harmful online content could have at least a moderate impact on children and youths.

Those survey respondents identified sexual content, cyberbullying and violent content as the top three types of content from which the young needed to be protected.

CODE OF PRACTICE

The proposed Bill will introduce a new part to the Broadcasting Act to regulate online communication services accessible in Singapore, which can be provided from within or outside the country.

MCI said that its regulatory approach consisted of two key parts: Requiring the regulated online communication services to comply with a code of practice, and dealing with egregious content.

The proposed code of practice covers the systems or processes that regulated service providers need to establish and apply to prevent people in Singapore, especially children, from accessing content that presents "a material risk of significant harm".

The regulated service providers would also be expected to "mitigate and manage the risks of danger" from content on their services.

To that end, the code could provide practical guidance on what content presents a material risk of significant harm to users of these online communication services.

The code of practice could also lay out the procedures that regulated service providers must follow. These include audits, reporting to IMDA on the measures they have implemented, and conducting risk assessments.

The code could also require regulated service providers to collaborate with research studies conducted by experts approved by IMDA, aimed at improving understanding of the systemic risks in the service providers.

SOCIAL MEDIA SERVICES

Social media services are one type of online communication services that will be specified in a new schedule under the Broadcasting Act.

Under IMDA's draft code of practice for online safety, social media services will be expected to put in place system-wide measures to minimise users' exposure to harmful content and give them tools to manage their own safety.

Categories of harmful content include sexual content, violent content, suicide and self-harm content, cyberbullying content, content endangering public health and content facilitating vice and organised crime.

"In particular, social media services must take additional steps to minimise children's exposure to inappropriate content and provide tools that allow children or their parents to manage their safety on these services," said the ministry.

They must minimise exposure through measures such as having a set of community guidelines and standards, and content moderation.

"Users should be empowered to manage their own safety on the services by having access to tools such as those that may hide harmful content or reduce the visibility of their own profile to other users," said MCI.

They should also have access to safety information, including Singapore-based safety resources.

Other key outcomes include an "easy-to-use mechanism" for users to report harmful content and unwanted interactions, and transparency about how well the services are protecting users in Singapore, said MCI.

Failure to comply with an applicable code of practice may result in IMDA ordering a financial penalty or a direction to take steps to remedy the failure.

Non-compliance with the direction to remedy the failure could be an offence, punishable with a fine upon conviction.

MEASURES AGAINST EGREGIOUS CONTENT

The proposed Bill will also allow IMDA to deal with egregious content by issuing three types of directions:

  • A direction issued to an online communication service provider to disable access by users in Singapore to the content on its service
  • A direction issued to an online communication service provider to ensure that a specified account (such as a social media account, group or channel) that is communicating the egregious content cannot continue communicating to users in Singapore
  • A direction issued to the Internet access service provider to block access by users in Singapore to the non-compliant online communication service

Under the proposed Bill, the IMDA cannot issue these directions in respect of private communications. Failure to comply with the directions could be an offence, punishable with a fine on conviction.

Appeals against the directions can be made to the Minister for Communications and Information.

"In light of the fast-evolving nature of harmful online content, the Bill and the proposed code of practice for online safety are important steps towards creating a safer online space for Singapore users, particularly children," said MCI.
 
Parliament will debate the Bill at its second reading, slated for November.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct errors about when the survey on harmful online conduct was carried out and which entity developed a draft code of practice.

 

Source: CNA/dv(gs)
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