Recently, Facebook displayed its first 'POFMA' notice since the newly dubbed 'fake news law' was put into effect in Singapore two months ago.
The notice, appearing at the bottom of a post on the Facebook page 'States Times Review', read:
"Facebook is legally required to tell you that the Singapore Government says this post has false information".
Singapore, unable to avoid the global fake news phenomenon, implemented POFMA (the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act) to tackle concerns over the growing body of misinformation communicated online (and, particularly, on social media platforms).
So, what do you need to know about POFMA? The following are 5 key features of the new law that tech and media companies who may fall under its purview should note:
1. Directions range from displaying notices to blocking end-user access.
If it is in the public interest to do so, POFMA enables Singapore's ministers to direct the communicator of a 'falsehood' (e.g. the relevant website or platform operator) to put up a notice indicating that the communication is false and/or issue a correction (where possible); remove the communication in question; or (for internet intermediaries such as Google, Facebook or Twitter and providers of mass media services) disable end-user access to the relevant statements in Singapore and/or communicate a correction notice to all end users via publication or transmission...no small feat.
2. Freedom of speech should not be affected.
Critics have raised concerns about the extent to which the new law may stifle legitimate discussion. However, not only are decisions made under POFMA subject to court and judicial review, there is also a relatively quick and inexpensive appeal process for individuals who believe their communications have been wrongly subjected to a POFMA Direction. Most pertinently, POFMA only prohibits false statements of fact – it is not intended to cover opinions, criticisms, satire or parody. Having been implemented so recently, it remains to be seen whether the critics' apprehensions will be vindicated but already, within the last couple of weeks, we have seen Google facing public reproval for apparently implementing a new ban on political advertising in Singapore on the basis of POFMA rules. Watch this space.
3. Communications made overseas are not exempt.
So long as the false statement is being communicated in Singapore, the fact that it originated from overseas will make no difference to POFMA. In fact, there is quite an array of communication types that you may be surprised to learn are not exempt: MMS and SMS, for example; closed platforms such as chat groups; even encrypted communications are all covered.
4. The penalties for non-compliance are high.
Individuals in breach of POFMA can be liable for fines of up to S$50,000 and/or a term of imprisonment up to 5 years. For companies (e.g. those running online media platforms) breaching POFMA could result in a fine of up to $500,000. Where a fake online account or bot has been used to purposely spread fake news, the fines for individual offenders can increase to S$100,000 and/or a term of imprisonment up to 10 years. For companies the fine cap increases to S$1 million. Furthermore, non-compliance with a Direction to put up a notice or remove the statement in question is an offence for which individuals can be fined up to S$20,000 and/or be imprisoned for up to 12 months and companies can be liable for a fine up to S$500,000.
5. You may be liable for spreading fake news even if you didn't know it was fake.
Criminal liability is reserved for those knowingly spreading fake news that harms the public interest but it is important to be aware that POFMA Directions (e.g. to display a notice or remove access to the statement) may still be issued against an unknowing communicator. As such, relevant players should be aware of the POFMA Codes of Practice that are there to ensure that adequate systems and processes have been put in place.