POFMA: Shackling the Web

Singapore’s latest anti fake news law has grabbed headlines as it affords sweeping powers to the state to monitor online platforms and chatgroups. Is this going to be the new normal for cyberspace?

Background

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act” (POFMA) is the latest act in the ongoing drama for control of cyberspace by the State. Passed earlier this year by the Singapore parliament, the law was prompted by the faceoff with Facebook over the posts on linking Singapore’s banks and Malaysia's 1 MDB State Fund. The Singapore government called the post “false and malicious.”

Singapore’s ruling party justified the law on the grounds of ensuring security of its fast-growing digital and financial hub and its dependence on an online environment that needs authentic information. Through POFMA, the State will control the dissemination of any “misinformation” deemed to be a threat to national security, public tranquillity and its “friendly relations” with other countries. 

Analysis

Singapore is a tightly run city-state with a proclivity for minding the citizen’s business. Information Technology News Singapore has reported that about 84% of Singaporeans are now internet users. An average Singaporean is logged on for about seven hours every day out of which about 2 hrs are devoted to social media.

With such a high penetration of the net, the Singapore government fears a fracturing of Singapore’s delicately balanced multi-ethnic and multi-religious makeup if fake news is allowed to spread unabated. The law specifically targets malicious trolls, bots and fake accounts. 

The law has attempted to define nebulous terms such as falsehood. Under POFMA a “false statement of facts” is legally defined as that ‘which a seeing, hearing, reasonable person or otherwise perceiving it would consider it to be a representation of a fact.’ This definition is an objective standard and does not give scope to a subjective assessment of each individual case. It also leaves the onus of interpretation on a “reasonable person” who in this case would be a government functionary as obviously the general public’s opinion will not be sought.

Within the purview of the law, falsehoods would mean statements or information that influence elections, incite hatred between different groups of persons and affect the confidence in the government and its other entities. However, this law does not extend to opinions, criticism, satire and parody. 

"Closed platforms, chat groups, social media groups, can serve as a public megaphone as much as an open platform," Edwin Tong, Senior Minister of State for Law said in parliament. The law can be used to censor private platforms such as chat groups and groups with end to end encryption.

Other laws such as the Telecommunications Act, Broadcasting Act, already criminalise falsehood and enable the government to penalise those peddling mistruths. POFMA goes a step further, by giving the government targeted powers to stop the spread of fake news over social media. 

The law will require online media platforms to carry corrections or remove content that the government considers to be false. Further, any minister of the government can decide whether the content on an online platform is considered a “falsehood” by directing the issue to the Infocomm Media Development authority, which can block the platform or source of the fake news. Those who disagree must appeal to a minister before they can appeal to the High court. 

A convicted individual can face a jail sentence up to ten years and noncompliant companies are fined up to USD $7,20,000.

Critics of the law, state that people will be wary of what they say or post online because the mandated punishments are quite severe. This will eventually strangle free speech and citizens will live in constant fear of prosecution. Benjamin Franklin, the founding father of the US stated: “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.” The POFMA has all the makings of a law that can be subject to misuse. Singapore already ranks 151 out of 183 countries in the World Press Freedom Index and a law like this will only retard press freedom further. 

Assessment

  • The lack of clarity in the law could become a loophole for the state to twist one man’s satire into another man’s falsehood and initiate legal action. Since the interpretation of posted material is the prerogative of the state, or more specifically its functionaries, its misuse against dissenters is a foregone conclusion.
  • The government’s defence of having 5.6 million internet users who are vulnerable to misinformation does not justify the arbitrary nature of the law. The government should consider using more specific and well -defined terminology in wording the critical articles of the new law to avoid loopholes and aberrations which can be exploited or create legal logjams.   
  • Singapore follows the step of Vietnam and Thailand, where governments have resorted to identical pretexts- national security and public wellbeing to impose restrictions. However, it compromises the true ideal of liberty, that is free speech. 
  • Singapore is to have elections in 2020 and allowing the ministers of the ruling party to dictate what constitutes “real” and “fake” news can be detrimental to the impartiality of pre-election canvassing.
  • This is not an isolated manifestation confined to these three countries only. The trend to control social media is becoming endemic even in large well-established democracies. It is a regressive step and needs deep deliberations and public debates before any such steps against free speech are initiated.

 

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