AIC urges the government to include checks and balances in POFMA and calls for transparency in application ahead of Parliamentary debate

The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) have put forth several observations and recommendations with regards to the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation (POFMA) which they hope will be considered in Parliament during the debate of the bill.

In an article on Straits Times, managing director of the AIC Jeff Paine said that “as an industry voice for internet policy in the Asia-Pacific”, they recognised “that the perpetration of deliberate online misinformation is a serious and highly complex issue”.

He said, “We share the Singapore Government’s commitment to addressing the problem and commend its wide-ranging efforts over the last two years in bringing together diverse stakeholders to jointly develop solutions.”

However, Mr Paine noted that while AIC supports the intention of the bill, it does have reservations over specific provisions, adding that these reservations have been shared by various individuals and groups including veteran journalists, legal experts, academics, and human rights representatives.

AIC said, “The overwhelming consensus is that this Bill will impact freedom of expression and curtail the rights of individuals, Singaporean or otherwise, to freely express opinions and participate in informed discussions, even debates, that are necessary to ensure executive transparency and accountability.”

In its current form, the AIC feels that vague definitions on fundamental terms such as ‘statement of fact’, ‘false statement’ and ‘public interest’ leaves room for a “highly subjective application of the law”.

The statement continues that these vague definitions and breadth of the scope of the bill gives rise to the possibility of it being misuse by the ministers the law empowers. Mr Paine added that the AIC are also concerned with the “lack of specific protections for the expression of opinion and criticism.” He said that while the government have verbally assured the public that criticism, opinion, satire and parody will not be covered within the scope of POFMA, “it is a striking omission that these kinds of popular speech are not explicitly addressed or protected in the Bill.”

He continue to say that the bill gives individual ministers an ‘extraordinary amount of power’ without providing a consistent criteria of how said ministers would justify their decisions.

This echoes their earlier statement released on 2 April just a day after POFMA was introduced in Parliament when the AIC said it was concerned that the proposed legislation gives the government “full discretion” over what is true or false. It said at the time, “As the most far-reaching legislation of its kind to date, this level of overreach poses significant risks to freedom of expression and speech, and could have severe ramifications both in Singapore and around the world.”

In their latest statement, Mr Paine noted that AIC is also worried about the limited scope of judicial oversight and the lack of robust safeguards in the appeal process. The Coalition adds that POFMA will significantly alter the way individuals in Singapore express themselves and participate in important social, political and civic debates.

As such, the AIC called for “smart regulation” that is a balance between reducing harm and protecting netizens’ rights to meaningful expression.

The AIC’s statement in ST was slightly more measured compared to their earlier statement. At the time, the AIC noted that it was “deeply disappointed” by the lack of public consultation during the drafting of POFMA. AIC added at the time that it stood by the position of many experts around the world that “prescriptive legislation should not be the first solution in addressing what is a highly nuanced and complex issue.”

The Coalition said in April that it would be studying the bill and hopes that the enforcement of the legislation would not be at the expense of the benefits that public debate and exchange of ideas can bring. A little over a month later, the AIC has come forth with several proposals:

  • The provision of a specific process, detailed criteria and guidelines for ministers, in order to publicly justify the reasons and conditions for the issuance of a correction or take-down order;
  • To ensure checks and balances, an impartial and independent body or mechanism must be put in place to assess a minister’s request before any order can be issued;
  • To ensure that freedom of expression and speech is protected and guaranteed in the long term, the Government’s assurance that criticism, opinion, satire and parody will be exempt from the Bill must be codified in the language of the law;
  • To ensure basic fairness in the Bill’s application, we strongly urge the Government to provide transparency around any application of the exclusion clause, which allows “any person or class of persons” to be exempted;
  • It is paramount that this Bill provides for clear and well-defined language and scope, targets very specific offences, and, critically, has full and independent judicial oversight and right to appeal available in a timely manner.
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