MPs debate 'egregious' content and privacy concerns under proposed law to enhance online safety
The Online Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill will allow IMDA to deal with harmful online content accessible to Singapore users, including those that originate outside the country.
SINGAPORE: Members of Parliament (MPs) raised questions on Tuesday (Nov 8) on how authorities will determine what content is considered "egregious" and why private messaging will not be regulated under a Bill that aims to tackle harmful online content accessible in Singapore.
First tabled on Oct 3, the Online Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill will empower the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) to deal with harmful online content accessible to Singapore users, regardless of where the content is hosted or initiated.
Currently, Singapore's Broadcasting Act does not cover entities that operate outside of the country.
Speaking in Parliament on Tuesday, Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo said Singapore's laws must evolve with the Internet.
"If such harmful content existed only on websites, IMDA would be able to deal with them under the existing Broadcasting Act. But today, users are more likely to consume content from the feeds of social media services, where such harmful content can be pushed via algorithms, and spread quickly through our social connections," she said.
"The entities controlling the biggest and most popular online communication services or platforms accessible in Singapore all operate from outside of Singapore, and fall outside the legal remit of the Broadcasting Act today.
"To ensure that Singapore users of these services and platforms can be kept safe, we must be able to take appropriate action on these entities, as long as they provide content accessible by Singapore users," she added.
While Ms Teo did not identify the social media services that will be covered by the code of practice, she said MCI had engaged Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and HardwareZone on the code, and that they were "receptive" to the proposals.
DEFINING EGREGIOUS CONTENT
During the debate on the new Bill, MPs asked what constitutes "egregious content".
Under the proposed legislation, IMDA will be empowered to issue directions to deal with "egregious content" including disabling Singapore users' access and stopping the content from being transmitted to Singapore users via other channels or accounts.
Egregious content will be defined in law to include those advocating terrorism, suicide and self-harm, physical or sexual violence and child sexual exploitation. It will also include content posing a public health risk or those that are likely to cause racial and religious disharmony in Singapore.
MP Tin Pei Ling (PAP-Macpherson) asked who would assess and decide on what content actually crosses the threshold to qualify as "egregious".
MP Leon Perera (WP-Aljunied) expressed concerns about “loot boxes” and other gambling-like elements in online games, which could render children more susceptible to problem gambling as adults. He said he hoped warning labels on games could be incorporated in the proposed law.
Members also raised concerns about how the proposed measures would affect user privacy and freedom of expression.
MP Gerald Giam (WP-Aljunied) asked what safeguards would be put in place to prevent abuse, given that the proposed law would give wide-ranging powers to IMDA to issue directions to social media companies to remove content it deems harmful.
Citing a draft bill by the UK which includes protections to safeguard pluralism and ensure Internet users can continue to engage in robust debate online, Mr Giam asked whether such provisions would be included in Singapore's laws.
Others suggested implementing a more robust age-verification system to prevent minors from accessing harmful content, pointing out that current processes can be easily circumvented.
MPs also asked about the considerations behind excluding private messages from the scope of content being regulated, arguing that harmful content could also be shared through private messaging channels.
The coverage of the proposed Bill excludes electronic services where the only user-generated content is “communication between two or more end-users that is of a private or domestic nature”.
Mr Perera (WP-Aljunied) highlighted the issue of cyberbullying, saying that parts of the law implied it would exclude, for example, cyberbullying of a child in a chat group on his or her Instagram page by other children.
“How to deal with this is a very difficult question and I confess that I do not have a legislative magic bullet to suggest here,” he said.
“I am not advocating for law enforcement agencies to police private conversations in a way that compromises privacy, could itself be subject to executive overreach, and could corrode our children’s capacity to spontaneously interact with one another as well as learn social lessons thereby.”
Mr Giam said he did not advocate for private messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram to be covered in the Bill, as they were primarily used for private communication between individuals.
"Much of the communication is end-to-end encrypted, which means even the platforms do not have access to data exchanged by their users. I would have strong privacy concerns if this encryption were to be broken for the sake of enhancing online safety," he said.
MPs also expressed concerns about ensuring the code of practice would be sufficiently updated to keep up with rapid changes in technology, such as the rise of the metaverse and decentralisation of the Internet in Web 3.0.
The parliamentary debate on the proposed Bill continues on Wednesday.