Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks during a press conference following the 33rd ASEAN summit in Singapore, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018.

© 2018 AP Photo/Yong Teck Lim
(New York) – Singapore’s proposed law on “online falsehoods” is sweepingly broad and threatens to stifle discussion on websites worldwide, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should withdraw the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation bill, introduced in Parliament on April 1, 2019, and significantly revise it to comply with international protections for freedom of speech.

The proposed law would authorize Singapore to order “corrections” to online content hosted anywhere in the world if a minister determines that a statement is false in whole or in part, that it is being communicated in Singapore, and that it is in the public interest to issue such a correction. The bill defines public interest broadly to include protecting Singapore’s “friendly relations” with other countries; preventing the diminution of public confidence in the government, any statutory board or part of the government; or protecting “public tranquillity.” The proposed law provides no guidance on how the minister will make a determination whether a statement is true or false or what standards are to be used in doing so.

“Singapore’s ministers should not have the power to singlehandedly decree what is true and what is false,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “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.”

Under the proposed law, any minister could order the issuance of a “correction direction” that requires the person or website that posted the material deemed false by the minister to post a “correction” in language specified by the minister or a body appointed by the minister indicating that the statement at issue is “false.” The direction can be ordered regardless of whether the person who posted the material is in Singapore, as long as the material can be accessed in Singapore. Failure to comply with such a direction can be punished with up to 12 months in prison and a S$20,000 (US$14,800) fine.

The minister could also authorize an order requiring an individual to stop communicating a particular statement in Singapore and to ensure that the statement is no longer available anywhere on or through the internet to end-users in the country. These provisions could easily be abused to silence or declare “false” criticisms of government actions or policies, or criticism of individual ministers.

While the individual subject to such orders could appeal to the High Court, such an appeal can only occur after an application to the minister has been heard and refused, and the order would remain in place for the duration of any such appeal. The High Court could only overturn a correction or stop order if it finds that the statement found objectionable is not a statement of fact, that it is true, or that it is technically impossible to fulfill the order.

The proposed law also authorizes the minister to order internet service providers to post statements indicating that content is false, or to disable access to certain content in Singapore, if the minister finds that the content is not true and that it is in the public interest to issue such an order. An internet service provider that fails to comply with such an order within the specified period of time could be fined up to S$1,000,000 (US$738,000).

When a website is the target of three active orders under the law, the government is empowered to restrict access to funding for the site through a “declaration of online locations.” Once the declaration has been made, internet service providers, digital advertising intermediaries, and certain other companies would be required to ensure that no paid content on that site or promoting that site is communicated in Singapore. It would also be a criminal offense to provide financial support to promote the website that is the subject of a declaration, or to receive any material benefit for operating such a website, making any paid employees of such a website potentially subject to criminal liability.

The law would make it a criminal offense to communicate a false statement of fact that reaches users in Singapore, knowing or having reason to believe the statement is false, if that statement is deemed likely to be prejudicial to Singapore’s security, public health, public safety, or public finances; to, diminish public confidence in the government, to incite ill-will between communities, or to have one of several other effects in the country. Violations would be punishable by up to five years in prison and a S$50,000 (US$36,900) fine.

A body appointed by the minister could also issue a binding code of practice covering internet intermediaries and digital advertising intermediaries that would mandate various forms of due diligence, reporting and record keeping. Intermediaries who do not abide by the code could face fines of up to S$1,000,000.

“Singapore’s government wants to be the arbiter of what anyone can say about Singapore anywhere in the world,” Robertson said. “The draft law is a blatant violation of free speech and an affront to freedom of the internet, and governments and businesses around the world should call on Singapore to withdraw it immediately.”