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Singapore introduces new bill to punish online fake news outlets

As countries around the world grapple with undemocratic or criminal involvement with fake news, companies like Facebook have come under pressure from lawmakers who demand the platform addresses the problem or risk losing their monopoly.

Now details have emerged of new legislative attempt to tackle the problem head on. Singapore plans to introduce tough new measures to hold digital outlets accountable for their role in spreading fake news.

According to a new bill presented to parliament, the proposed law would require sites to both take down misleading news and show corrections. In certain cases, the government would also be able to issue restrictions to platforms so they could disable fake news or bot accounts. Account holders will be able to appeal in court.

The government’s bill is backed up by serious criminal sanctions which include up to ten years in prison and fines of up to $1 million. The punishments will also apply to those individuals or companies who spread fake news in return for financial gains or other rewards.

Human rights organizations said the proposed law is too broad and threatens freedom of speech. “Singapore’s ministers should not have the power to singlehandedly decree what is true and what is false,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Given Singapore’s long history of prohibiting speech critical of the government, its policies or its officials, its professed concerns about ‘online falsehoods’ and alleged election manipulation are farcical.”

In adopting legislation to combat fake news Singapore joins countries like France and Germany in mandating the oversight of content on digital platforms. Last week, Australia said it would adopt new laws to prevent social media platforms from being “weaponized” by terrorists who could use them to live-stream massacres such as the attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in which 50 people died.

In an attempt to get ahead of a global push to limit the power of digital platforms, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg last week published an open appeal calling for new global regulations for hate speech online, privacy and data protection. “From what I’ve learned, I believe we need new regulation in four areas: harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability,” he wrote.

“There are a lot of falsehoods being propagated,” said Singapore’s Law Minister K Shanmugam, of the new bill. “If they are not dealt with, then free speech itself will be undermined, democracy will be undermined, public institutions will be undermined.”