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Singapore passes law requiring social media sites to block harmful content 'within hours'

If the platforms refuse, IMDA may direct Internet access service providers to stop users in Singapore from accessing the content.

04:07 Min
Social media sites will be required to block access to harmful content within hours, after a law to strengthen online safety was passed by Parliament on Wednesday (Nov 9). Jeraldine Yap with more. 

SINGAPORE: Social media sites will be required to block access to harmful content within hours, after a law to strengthen online safety was passed by Parliament on Wednesday (Nov 9).

If an online platform refuses to take down harmful content, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) can issue a direction to Internet access service providers to block access by users in Singapore.

First tabled on Oct 3, the Online Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill empowers the 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. 

During the debate, which spanned two days, nearly 20 Members of Parliament (MPs) from both sides of the House spoke about the rising prevalence of harmful online content, with some calling for more safeguards to protect particularly vulnerable users such as children. 

MPs also raised questions on how authorities would determine "egregious" content, and on why private messaging would not be regulated under the new law.

Egregious content will be defined in the 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 likely to cause racial and religious disharmony in Singapore.

Some MPs also suggested introducing "mandatory screen times" for young children. 

"Excessive screen time has been linked to poor development outcomes, and we must ensure that our young do not get hooked onto the never-ending spiral of scrolling mindlessly through social media content," said MP Melvin Yong (PAP-Radin Mas).

Mr Louis Ng (PAP-Nee Soon) asked whether the social media services covered by the law also include online platforms whose "core business is not social media", such as e-commerce sites and online games, and semi-private communities like Discord and Telegram.

MPs also highlighted the spectrum of offensive content, with MP Saktiandi Supaat (PAP-Bishan-Toa Payoh) questioning whether content encouraging Singaporeans to participate in foreign armed conflict or depicting animal abuse and cruelty would be covered.

In her closing speech, Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo said if the Bill could become unwieldy, unfocused and ultimately ineffective if it covered too many types of platforms or harms prematurely.

"Our approach has been to identify and address specific areas of harm in a targeted manner. As to whether the laws will be consolidated later, that remains to be seen. At this time, it is more important that we put in place legislation that effectively addresses and combats the respective harms," she said. 

Mrs Teo acknowledged that some egregious content may fall under grey areas which can be difficult to define clearly. In such cases, IMDA will take an objective approach and consider the context in which it is presented.

Citing an example raised by MP Nadia Ahmad Samdin (PAP-Ang Mo Kio) about online forums for users to share experiences of depression and anxiety, Mrs Teo said: "If such content is educational in nature, or helps users to overcome these harms naturally, it will not be considered harmful or egregious."

"On the other hand, social media trends or challenges may sometimes appear innocuous ... But if they result in harm to users, such as by advocating or providing instructions on self harm or suicide, they would be considered harmful."

PRIVATE COMMUNICATIONS, FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

On the exclusion of private communications from coverage under the law, Ms Teo said: "The short answer is that there are legitimate privacy concerns."

But users will have recourse as a draft code of practices for online safety will require designated social media services to provide easily accessible user reporting mechanisms.

"While we do not intend to police private communications, we're also aware that there are groups with very large memberships, which could be used to propagate egregious content, making them no different from non-private communications," said the minister.

IMDA will be empowered to take the same actions against groups in such instances, said Ms Teo.

"Labelling a group or communications as private does not make it so. The Bill sets out a list of factors that must be considered collectively," she said.

"For example, it may be possible to conclude that a social media group is public, even if that social media group has been set to private and requires the owner to grant permission before one can access the content; but the owner is indiscriminate in granting that access."

On the first day of the debate, MPs Gerald Giam (WP-Aljunied) and Leon Perera (WP-Aljunied) had sought assurances that the law would not be used to curtail freedom of expression.

Ms Teo reiterated in her closing speech that IMDA did not have the "unfettered" ability to issue new codes of practice.

"I would also like to remind members of the overarching purpose of the Bill, that is to provide a safe environment and conditions that protect online users while respecting freedom of speech and expression as enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution," she said.

TOUGHER ENFORCEMENT

Several MPs aired their views on strengthening enforcement powers of the code of practice, with some calling on the Government to specify a fixed time period within which social media services must take down harmful content.

In response, Ms Teo said the timeline stipulated by IMDA would generally be "within hours". Social media services will also be required to act on user reports in a timely manner, with timelines expedited for terrorism-related content.

Mr Desmond Choo (PAP-Tampines) asked whether the Ministry of Communications and Information would set up an avenue for users in Singapore to report violations of the code of practice by social media services.

He also questioned the level of financial penalties provided for in the Bill, which he described as a "slap on the wrist" compared to other jurisdictions.

The code proposes a maximum fine of S$1 million for a social media service that does not comply with its practices or with directions to block access to harmful content.

Mr Choo contrasted this with the maximum financial penalty under the Privacy and Data Protection Act, which is S$1 million or 10 per cent of an organisation's annual turnover in Singapore, whichever is higher.

Responding to these concerns, Mrs Teo said the financial penalty quantum is comparable with other local legislation that covers social media services, such as the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA) and the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA). 

She added that services will also face reputational damage, in the event of repeated non-compliance. 

"Imagine if a service is consistently found to be in breach and IMDA, over a period of time, is regularly issuing them penalties, these will be known to the public, and users themselves can exercise the decision whether to continue using the service," she said.

Under the new law, IMDA can also direct an Internet access service provider to block access by users in Singapore, in the event an online communication service refuses to take down a harmful online content.

Mrs Teo said the duration of the blocking direction would depend on the individual case. 

"It is a measure IMDA will not take lightly, but IMDA's resolve in protecting Singaporeans interests should not be tested," she said.

Source: CNA/vl(jo)
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