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The provisions under the proposed Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act do not apply to Singaporeans expressing their own views on political matters, unless they are agents of a foreign principal. — Reuters pic
The provisions under the proposed Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act do not apply to Singaporeans expressing their own views on political matters, unless they are agents of a foreign principal. — Reuters pic

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SINGAPORE, Sept 14 — With evolving tactics being deployed in hostile information campaigns to influence Singapore’s politics, the government has proposed a number of powers to address such threats.

If the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill tabled in Parliament yesterday is passed, the Singapore government will be able issue directives aimed at uncovering and countering such harmful campaigns that may use botnets, for example.

The Singapore government will also be able to force these accounts to close or return any foreign funding used for their operations.

These proposed powers will extend to social media platforms such as Facebook and TikTok, internet service providers such as StarHub, M1 and Singtel, electronic communication services such as WhatsApp, as well as website owners and social media users.

However, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) stressed in its statement that the provisions do not apply to Singaporeans expressing their own views on political matters, unless they are agents of a foreign principal. 

“Singaporeans have the right to discuss politics,” it said.

The proposed Bill is also not intended to stop foreigners or foreign publications from commenting on domestic politics as long as they do so openly and transparently, the ministry added.

Several countries have introduced laws capable of tackling hostile information campaigns.

For example, France has passed laws to combat the manipulation of information, allowing a judge to issue a directive for platforms to remove or block access to content within 48 hours, or de-reference or de-list it from search engines.

Germany’s Network Enforcement Act, or NetzDG, came into force in 2017 and has been used several times since to compel technology platforms to remove content deemed illegal under the law, such as those that contain hate speech and political extremism.

Proposed powers

Under the proposed Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, the Minister for Home Affairs may issue the following directives.

Technical Assistance Direction

If issued, persons behind hostile content or the service that carried the content will be compelled to disclose information required by the authorities to determine if the activity was done by or on behalf of a foreign principal.

Account Restriction Direction

This direction will require social media platforms or electronic services to block all content from an account being viewed in Singapore, such as by suspending or terminating the account.

Stop Communication (End-User) Direction

When the content can cause immediate and significant harm to Singapore, this direction can target such content specifically to prevent it from being communicated to end-users in Singapore.

Disabling Direction

Similar to a Stop Communication (End-User) Direction, this is used to target internet intermediaries to stop the communication of such content in Singapore.

Access Blocking Direction

In the event that the Stop Communication and Disabling directions failed to work, internet service providers can be ordered to block access to the content.

Service Restriction Direction

Social media services, relevant electronic services and internet services providers will have to take “practicable and technically feasible actions” to restrict the dissemination of harmful content.

App Removal Direction

App distribution services can be ordered to stop applications known to be used by foreign principles to conduct hostile information campaigns from being downloaded in Singapore.

Must-Carry Direction

This direction will require various parties to publish a mandatory message from the Singapore government “in a conspicuous and timely manner”.

Disgorgement Direction

Individuals and locally registered entities who have enabled or published harmful online content and had accepted money or material support to do so will be required to return them to their source or surrender such support received to the authorities.

Proscribed Online Location

A website will be designated as a purveyor of hostile information campaigns by the Minister for Home Affairs if it has been subject to another direction, except the Technical Assistance Direction.

These websites must describe themselves as Proscribed Online Locations (POLs), and no one will be allowed to purchase advertising space on these websites or on other websites to promote these POLs.

“The aim is to discredit and de-monetise these POLs in order to stem their ability to mount further hostile information campaigns against Singapore,” said the MHA.

Only when a hostile campaign has taken place

If the Bill is passed, the Minister for Home Affairs will be empowered to issue these directions if it is in the public interest to do so, and if he suspects that a hostile information campaign is going on or has happened, and is conducted by or on behalf of a foreign principal.

Only the Technical Assistance Direction and Account Restriction Direction can be issued pre-emptively, when the minister suspects that there are preparations or plans to conduct such an operation.

The proposed law will also allow for appeals against the minister’s decision to issue these directions, MHA said.

These appeals will be heard by an independent reviewing tribunal, which is to be chaired by a sitting High Court Judge and two other persons who are not in the Singapore government. The decisions made by the tribunal will be final and binding, the ministry said. — TODAY

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