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Singapore “Fake News” Law Goes Into Effect

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  • A new law has gone into effect in Singapore that aims to stop the spread of fake news by allowing members of the government to single-handedly decide what is and is not fake news and whether or not that content should be removed.
  • Critics have argued that the law is a blatant attempt to suppress free speech and stifle political dissent ahead of an election.
  • Big tech companies like Facebook and Google have also vocally opposed the law, and others have noted that one of the most concerning aspects is that it also applies to private messages sent on encrypted apps like WhatsApp.
  • Now, individuals can face up to 10 years in jail for sharing whatever the government deems “false information.”

“Fake News” Law

A controversial bill widely known as the “fake news” law officially went into effect in Singapore Wednesday.

The new law will aim to stop the spread of disinformation, or fake news, in the city-state. The legislation, which is officially called the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, was passed by Singapore’s Parliament back in May.

According to reports, it will now be illegal to spread any “false statements of fact” that would potentially pose a threat to “public tranquility,” and the “friendly relations of Singapore with other countries.” 

That may seem straightforward, but the law is controversial due to the fact that it gives government ministers the sole power to determine what is and is not fake news, with the threshold for determination also being quite low.

According to Channel News Asia, a minister simply needs to decide if something is a “falsehood,” which is defined as “a statement of fact that is false or misleading.” 

Then, if that minister says it is in the public interest to take action against the “falsehood,” they can order whatever content they determine to be fake news to be taken down or have a correction put up next to it.

Government ministers can also force tech companies like Facebook and Google to block accounts or websites they say are spreading false information.

While the government has said that anyone impacted by the law can file an appeal and that the appeals process will be quick and cheap, the consequences of being found guilty of posting false information are extremely high.

Under the law, companies that are found guilty of spreading fake news can face fines up to $1 million in Singapore dollars—which is about $722,000 in U.S. dollars—while individuals who are found guilty can face up to 10 years in prison.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that the law is necessary “to hold online news sources and platforms accountable if they proliferate deliberate online falsehoods.”

“If we do not protect ourselves, hostile parties will find it a simple matter to turn different groups against one another and cause disorder in our society,” he added.

Free Speech Concerns

However, critics of the law have said that it is a clear attempt to stifle free speech and dissent, with many arguing that it gives way too much power and authority to the government without providing oversight for government abuse.

To that point, opponents have pointed to Singapore’s mixed record on protecting press freedoms and political dissent.

In the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 151 out of 180 countries for press freedoms, meaning Singapore was ranked in one of the worst positions for a country that considers itself a democracy.

Notably, that also placed it below countries that are well-known for censoring any kind of political opposition, like Russia and Myanmar.

As a result, the activists, experts, and rights groups who have openly criticized the law worry that it will be used as a political tool for censorship.

Speaking to CNN, the Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, said the bill will be used for “political purposes,” noting that it comes right before elections set to happen in the next few months.

“The Singapore government has a long history of calling everything they disagree with as false and misleading,” he added. 

“Singapore’s leaders have crafted a law that will have a chilling effect on internet freedom throughout south-east Asia, and likely start a new set of information wars as they try to impose their narrow version of ‘truth’ on the wider world,” Robertson wrote in a tweet Wednesday.

The International Commission of Jurists, a group of judges and lawyers, also echoed Robertson’s sentiment in a statement before the law passed, where they argued that the law would create “a real risk that the law will be misused to clamp down on opinions or information critical of the government.”

Even members of Parliament have spoken out against the bill, arguing it is an overextension of government power.

“To introduce such a bill is not what the government claims to defend democracy and public interest, it is more like the actions of a dictatorial government that will resort to any means to hold on to absolute power,” opposition lawmaker Low Thia Khiang said before the bill’s passage in May.

Tech Companies Opposition

Others have also argued the law will give Singapore too much power over big tech firms that have a large presence in Singapore. For example, Facebook, Twitter, and Google all have their Asian headquarters in the city-state.

“This law would give Singapore overwhelming leverage over the likes of Facebook and Twitter to remove whatever the government determines is ‘misleading,’” Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southeast Asia Nicholas Bequelin said in a statement. 

“This is an alarming scenario. While tech firms must take all steps to make digital spaces safe for everyone, this does not provide governments an excuse to interfere with freedom of expressionor rule over the news feed,” he added.

Google and Facebook both opposed the law when it was being debated in Parliament. After it was passed, Google said that the law will “hurt innovation and the growth of the digital information ecosystem.”

Others have also noted that one of the most concerning parts so the law is that it does not just apply to posts made publicly on Facebook or Twitter but that it can be applied to closed private messaging apps and chat groups like WhatsApp, which is extremely popular in Singapore.

That, in turn, means the government can not only read its citizen’s private messages but also potentially jail them for up to 10 years for content sent privately, maybe even to just one other person.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (VICE) (The Guardian)

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Politics

TikTok Refuses to Testify at Hearing About Chinese Influence Amid National Security Investigation

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  • TikTok denied requests by Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) to testify under oath during a Tuesday Congressional hearing concerning fears that the Chinese-owned social media platform is sharing U.S. user data with the Chinese government.
  • According to reports, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S opened a national security investigation into TikTok’s $1 billion purchase of Musical.ly in 2017.
  • For its part, TikTok has repeatedly said that its servers are all outside of China, and therefore, outside of Chinese law. Because of this, it also says it does not censor content.

Sen. Hawley Invites TikTok to Testify

Executives for the social media platform TikTok refused to testify at a Congressional hearing on Tuesday amid ongoing fears that it may pose a national security risk regarding Chinese counter-intelligence.

On Friday, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States reportedly opened an investigation into TikTok, which was created as an international version of the app Douyin and is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. According to anonymous sources, the investigation involves TikTok’s 2017 $1 billion acquisition of Musical.ly.

Both the hearing and the investigation are the latest in a series of concerns that TikTok is sharing American data with China’s Communist Party, particularly that is sharing the data it collects on users’ locations and censoring content.

Tuesday’s hearing organized by Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) focused on two main concerns. The first was business deals between American tech companies and the Chinese government and the second was rapidly growing Chinese companies in America and how they collect U.S. user data.

“[As] these Big Tech companies try to get into the Chinese market, the compromises that they have to make with the Communist Chinese Party — who, let’s not forget, partner with or control every industry of any size in China — what does that do to American security?” Hawley told Axios ahead of the hearing. 

Also prior to the hearing, Hawley blasted TikTok’s decision to decline appearing in a series of tweets. 

Hawley has also been a vocal critic surrounding China’s influence over Hong Kong, having visited the city last month and co-sponsoring the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

Is TikTok Sending Americans’ Data to the Chinese Government?

Last month, Senator Marco Rubio actually asked the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to open an investigation into TikTok because of concerns that the platform was censoring content. 

A couple of weeks later, Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) then echoed those concerns by asking U.S. Intelligence officials to open a national security review of the platform.

“With over 110 million downloads in the U.S. alone, TikTok is a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore,” both Schumer and Cotton said in a joint statement. “Given these concerns, we ask that the Intelligence Community conduct an assessment of the national security risks posed by TikTok and other China-based content platforms operating in the U.S. and brief Congress on these findings.”

TikTok representatives responded in a blog post the next day saying, “We store all TikTok US user data in the United States, with backup redundancy in Singapore. Our data centers are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law.

“Let us be very clear: TikTok does not remove content based on sensitivities related to China,” the statement read. “We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period.”

Despite TikTok’s assurance that China does not intercept its data, Schumer and Cotton said they fear that TikTok “is still required to adhere to the laws of China” and that could “compel Chinese companies to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.”

U.S. Opens Investigation into TikTok

Following reports that the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States had opened a national security investigation, TikTok declined to speak on the confidential matter, but it did issue a statement. 

“While we cannot comment on ongoing regulatory processes,” the statement reads, “TikTok has made clear that we have no higher priority than earning the trust of users and regulators in the U.S. Part of that effort includes working with Congress and we are committed to doing so.”

Schumer then praised the news of the probe, saying it was “validation of our concern that apps like TikTok…may pose serious risks to millions of Americans and deserve greater scrutiny.”

Similar Concerns Over Apple

TikTok isn’t the only social media platform under fire. Hawley also invited Apple to Tuesday’s hearing, but like TikTok, it denied the request.

Regarding Apple, Hawley is particularly interested in the tech giant’s business deals with China and where it stores encryption keys for iCloud data.

“My question is, are they storing encryption keys in China? “ Hawley asked ahead of the hearing. “The answer to that is yes. Then what kind of data are they storing in China? Whose data? Any American data? What about people who have Chinese relatives or business partners or other ventures, so they’re communicating with people in China? Does that expose American users to potential surveillance by the Chinese state?”

Although Apple did not directly respond to Hawley’s question, in the past, it has said that it retains its encryption keys, not its Chinese partner.

See what others are saying: (Axios) (Washington Post) (BBC)

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