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Friday, Aug 14, 2020

Singapore orders Facebook to comply with fake news law and ‘correct’ dissident’s post

The Lion City demands social media giant correct a post by Australia-based blogger Alex Tan Zhi Xiang on his ‘States Times Review’ page. The development potentially sets up a showdown between the Singapore government and Facebook
The Singapore government on Friday invoked one of the most controversial parts of its new ‘fake news’ law to order Facebook to correct a post by an Australia-based dissident, after the blogger refused its demands to comply with what he described as an “unjust law”.

The office in charge of administering the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation (POFMA) Act said the home and law minister K. Shanmugam had instructed it to issue a “targeted correction direction” to Facebook.

The order requires Facebook to publish a correction notice on a November 23 post by the ‘States Times Review’ page run by the blogger Alex Tan Zhi Xiang.

If the social media giant fails to comply, it is liable for a fine not exceeding S$1 million (US$731,905), and a further S$100,000 for each additional day of non-compliance after conviction.

This Week in Asia understands that Facebook is reviewing the order.

Singaporean lawyer Chooi Jing Yen, a partner at the law firm Eugene Thuraisingham LLP, said non-compliance would “obviously be a breach of POFMA” unless the technology company could provide a “reasonable excuse” as set out in the law.

The POFMA Office also said it had commenced investigations against Tan for failing to comply with the order issued to him on Thursday.

The post, according to the government, peddled multiple falsehoods, including the assertion that Shanmugam had ordered the arrest of the person behind a separate Facebook post the minister’s office had slammed as inaccurate last weekend.

“These claims are false and baseless,” the POFMA Office had said on Thursday.

The post could still be found on the States Times Review Facebook page, with a new line added: “The Singapore government claimed that no arrest was made. This runs contrary to the tip off we received.”

Under the law, all cabinet ministers can issue a “Part 4 Direction” to social media companies and internet service providers if an individual does not comply with a “Part 3 Direction” to correct or take down posts with false statement of facts.

The Singapore government enacted the law despite criticism at home and abroad that it would further chill dissent in the tightly governed country, claiming that tough legislation was required to quash a rising global tide of online falsehoods that have implications for national security and social peace.

The latest development potentially sets up a showdown between the Singapore government and Facebook, which has given no assurances that it will comply with being asked to alter end users’ content.

POFMA came into effect on October 2, after Singapore’s parliament – in which the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has a supermajority – approved the law in May.

The PAP, led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, has rejected claims that the law will be used to restrict political discussions online ahead of a general election expected to be called next year.

The latest orders follow the POFMA office’s issuance of a correction direction to opposition politician Brad Bowyer on Monday – the first time ever the law had been invoked.

Bowyer immediately complied with the order and amended his November 13 Facebook post, which questioned the independence of the country’s two main state investment companies.

Chooi, the Singaporean lawyer, said the government’s next steps in dealing with Facebook was of particular interest.

“The more interesting question is whether and how the Singapore government will pursue this, because the issue of whether Facebook has indeed failed to comply without reasonable excuse is for the Singapore court to decide,” said Chooi.
“The Singapore government would first have to institute formal proceedings against Facebook, which may perhaps be met with a jurisdictional objection of sorts.”

If Facebook does not comply, Benjamin Joshua Ong, an assistant professor law at the Singapore Management University, said an immediate term measure available to the government would be to order internet service providers to block access to Tan’s post.

The city state last November clashed with Facebook over content by Tan, who previously contested general elections as an opposition candidate and who now lives in Australia.

At the time – before POFMA came into force – the government asked Facebook to take down a post that falsely alleged that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was involved in Malaysia’s multibillion-dollar 1MDB financial scandal. When Facebook refused, the law ministry issued a rare criticism of the social media giant – which has its Asia Pacific headquarters in Singapore.

“Facebook has declined to take down a post that is clearly false, defamatory and attacks Singapore, using falsehoods,” it said. “This shows why we need legislation to protect us from deliberate online falsehoods.”

In a Facebook post before the government’s order to the social media company, Tan thanked the city state’s authorities for “bringing more traffic to States Times Review”.

“More Singaporeans now have access to independent Singapore news content, that are free from government censorship, as opposed to the 154th ranking state media,” Tan wrote, referring to the local media’s position in annual press freedom rankings.
The name States Times Review is a play on Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper. The website is blocked in Singapore.

Facebook has been approached for a comment. The United States-based company can choose to file an appeal to Shanmugam – the minister who issued the order to it – and subsequently to Singapore’s High Court. Law professor Ong said Facebook “would generally still have to comply” with the order if an appeal is filed and is pending before the court.
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