Singapore has mooted new laws that will arm the government with the ability to issue directives to various platforms, including social media and websites, to remove or block access to content deemed part of hostile information campaigns. The proposed Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill aims to detect and prevent foreign interference in local politics, conducted through such campaigns and the use of local proxies.
The country’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on Monday unveiled details of the proposed bill in parliament, describing foreign interference as a serious threat to its political sovereignty and national security.
“During a hostile information campaign, hostile foreign actors can seek to mislead Singaporeans on political issues, stir up dissent and disharmony by playing up controversial issues such as race and religion, or seek to undermine confidence and trust in public institutions,” the ministry said in a statement.
Government’s proposed bill to combat online falsehoods gives the administration “full discretion” on whether a piece of content is deemed true or false and this level of “overreach” poses significant risks to freedom of expression, cautions an industry group representing major internet and technology companies including Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
It noted that online comments critical of Singapore saw “abnormal” spikes on social media when the country faced bilateral issues with another country in late-2018 and 2019.
MHA further pointed to instances in recent years where social media and communications technologies were used as vehicles to carry “covert, coordinated, and sophisticated” online information campaigns. These sought to push the interests of one country against other nations by manipulating public opinion on domestic political issues in the targeted nation, the ministry said.
It cited foreign actors that set up troll farms ahead of the 2020 US presidential elections to highlight controversial domestic issues and promote or discredit certain candidates. There also were efforts to discredit the US government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and sow scepticism of Western-developed vaccines.
Hostile foreign actors used a range of tactics and tools to interfere in domestic political discussions, including bots on social media or creating inauthentic accounts to mislead users about their identity.
MHA said: “As an open, highly digitally-connected, and diverse society, Singapore is especially vulnerable to foreign interference. To counter this evolving threat, we are strengthening our detection and response capabilities, as well as Singaporeans’ ability to discern legitimate and artificial online discourse.
“To complement these efforts, our laws need to evolve, just as other countries have introduced new laws to tackle foreign interference. This bill will strengthen our ability to counter foreign interference, and ensure that Singaporeans continue to make our own choices on how we should govern our country and live our lives.”
The Foreign Interference Bill would give MHA the powers to issue directives to various entities, such as social media, providers or relevant electronic services–including messaging apps and search engines–and internet access services, and owners of websites, blogs, and social media pages, to help authorities investigate and counter hostile communications that originate overseas.
Because hostile information campaigns used sophisticated and covert methods, the bill would empower MHA to issue “technical assistance directions” to these entities on which “suspicious content” was carried, which then would have to disclose information authorities needed to ascertain if the communications were carried out on behalf of a foreign principal.
For instance, these foreign actors might use fake accounts and bot networks that were highly sophisticated. Relevant authorities then would require information that resided within the social media companies to ascertain if foreign principals were behind these hostile information campaigns.
Technical assistance directions would be issued if MHA had suspicions of plans to conduct an online communication activity in Singapore or on behalf of a foreign actor, and the ministry deemed it in public interest to issue the directive.
In addition, “account restriction directions” would be issued to social media and relevant electronic services operators to block content, from accounts used in hostile information campaigns, from being viewed in Singapore.
MHA also would be able to issue take-down content orders, which would be needed for content that could cause “immediate and significant harm” in Singapore, the ministry said. These included inciting violence or causing hostility between groups.
Should internet intermediaries or communicators fail to comply with such directives, MHA might order internet services providers to block access to the content through an “access blocking direction”.
Service restriction directions would require the relevant platforms to take “practicable and technically feasible actions” to restrict the dissemination of content used in hostile information campaigns. These could include disabling or limiting functions that allowed content to become viral, according to MHA.
An “app removal direction” also could be issued to require an app distribution service to stop apps, known to be used by foreign principals to conduct such campaigns, from being downloaded in Singapore.
The bill would not apply to Singaporeans expressing their personal views on political issues, unless they were agents of a foreign entity, MHA said. Foreigners and foreign publications reporting or commenting on Singapore politics in an “open, transparent, and attributable way” also would not be subject to the new rules.
Singapore in May 2019 passed its Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), following a brief public debate, which kicked in October 2019. The bill was passed amidst strong criticism that it gave the government far-reaching powers over online communication and would be used to stifle free speech as well as quell political opponents.
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