Singapore's Newly Proposed Law Against Foreign Interference Includes Content Take Down And Blocking Orders

Singapore's Newly Proposed Law Against Foreign Interference Includes Content Take Down And Blocking Orders
Singapore govt tables Foreign Interference Bill
Snapshot
  • Singapore government tabled the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill to combat hostile actors, information campaigns and local proxies by foreign groups seeking to influence domestic politics.

    This Bill, if passed, will give govt the ability to compel internet and social media service providers to disclose user information, remove online content and block user accounts.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in Singapore tabled a bill in Parliament on 13 September to prevent, identify and disrupt the deployment of hostile information campaigns and local proxies by foreign groups seeking to influence domestic politics.

The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill will give the Singapore government a number of tools to combat hostile actors, including the ability to compel internet and social media service providers to disclose user information, remove online content and block user accounts.

The proposed legislation will make it illegal to plot or carry out foreign interference through electronic communications activities, as well as to disobey orders.

For example, those found guilty of failing to comply with a technical assistance direction, a stop communication (end-user) direction, or a disgorgement direction, could face up to two years in prison, a fine of up to 20,000 Singaporean dollar, or both. According to reports, a maximum fine of 500,000 Singaporean dollar might be imposed on entities.

The ministry said: "This Bill targets foreign interference in Singapore's domestic affairs. The provisions proposed in this Bill will help ensure that Singaporeans continue to make our own decisions on how we govern our country and live our lives."

PSPs

Individuals and groups directly involved in Singapore's political processes will be recognised as politically significant persons or PSPs. If the bill passes, they will be subject to procedures to reduce the danger of foreign intervention. Political parties, political officeholders, Members of Parliament and election candidates and their election agents are all included. They'll be referred to as "defined PSPs".

The Channel News Asia reported that defined PSPs must record single gifts of 10,000 Singaporean dollar or more from acceptable donors, as well as numerous donations from the same contributor totalling 10,000 Singaporean dollar or more in a year, under the proposed law.

They must also keep a separate bank account for political donations so that all cash related to their political activities may be tracked. They are not permitted to accept anonymous donations in excess of 5,000 Singaporean dollar, to solicit the assistance of a foreigner to volunteer for their political activities, or to reveal any foreign links.

If a higher risk of foreign interference exists, the competent authority can issue designated PSPs with more stringent countermeasures than specified PSPs. The competent authorities can also direct any PSP that publishes material on Singapore-related political problems to reveal the identity of any foreign author and/or foreign principal for whom or on whose behalf the article or programme is published.

HICs

Foreign interference and hostile information campaigns (HICs)—the use of online tools and tactics in a coordinated manner to mislead or incite users and advance a foreign country's interest—pose a serious threat to Singapore's political sovereignty and national security, said the ministry in a statement on the Bill.

Additionally, it said: "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."

For example, HICs include—

  • Creating and using inauthentic accounts to mislead users about their identity and credibility.

  • Inciting users to troll or harass or intimidate a particular target.

  • Using bots on social media sites or ads to artificially boost the reach of certain messages and engineer and artificial sense of strong public support for a certain position or statement.

  • Creating accounts and cultivating a public following by posting on benign topics, before pushing out political messages at critical periods.

According to MHA, given the open, technologically connected and varied culture, Singapore is particularly vulnerable to such influence. The ministry said: "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."

The authorities can identify individuals or organisations that may be susceptible to foreign influence, require them to disclose relevant information on a regular basis and gather information on foreign interference efforts. According to MHA, Singapore has not been immune to such attempts at intervention.

It detailed how, in the 1980s, Hank Hendrickson, first secretary at the American Embassy in Singapore, recruited a group of local lawyers to enter opposition politics and run in the 1988 general election. These lawyers were given financial assistance, and one of them, Francis Seow, was promised asylum in the United States if he ran into problems with the Singapore government. Later, he was granted US citizenship.

New Measures

The guidelines are aimed at social media firms, electronic services such as online messaging apps or search engines, internet access providers and persons who own or operate websites or blogs.

Authorities can order social media platforms to disclose the information even before suspected hostile information campaign content is published or require newspapers to publish a mandatory message about an impending hostile information campaign even if they did not carry the offending content.

However, prior to issuing these directions, the authorities must suspect or have cause to believe that content has been or will be provided by or on behalf of a foreign person; that information or material will be released as a result; and that issuing the directions is in the public interest.

As per the MHA: "These 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. Nor do they apply to foreign individuals or foreign publications reporting or commenting on Singapore politics, in an open, transparent and attributable way, even if their comments may be critical of Singapore or the Government."

It was reported that those who seek to challenge these orders could apply to the minister for a variation or cancellation of the order. If the minister refuses, the applicant can take their case to a Reviewing Tribunal, which is chaired by a sitting High Court judge and consists of two other people who are not government officials. The appeal can be dismissed, or the minister's decision can be revoked by the tribunal.

Designated PSPs can ask the competent authority to review their designation or appeal to the minister if they want to contest their designation or the harsher countermeasures imposed on them. MHA said: "The Minister for Home Affairs may consult an advisory body when he hears appeals regarding the designation and stepped up countermeasures."

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