Content Concentration: Singapore’s Approach to Online Platform Governance
Updated: Aug 15
Economies across the world are looking at how to regulate online platforms. In Singapore, the government’s efforts appear to focus mainly on content hosted or posted on online platforms (in particular, social media platforms). Two major developments in online content regulation in the country are the enactments of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) – often referred to as the “Fake News Law” – in 2019 and the Online Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Act (OSMAA) in 2022. The POFMA is intended to prevent, or otherwise counteract the negative effects of, electronic communication of false statements (including creation and usage of bots for this purpose) and knowingly providing services for communication of false statements. Part 4 of the POFMA empowers the government to issue a number of directions to “internet intermediaries” and “providers of mass media services” to communicate a notice correcting information that the government has identified as false and disable users’ access to online locations where such information is posted. Penalties for non-compliance include fines of up to SGD1 million (US$745,330), daily fines of up to SGD100,000 (US$74,533) a day, and blocking access to the online platform by users in Singapore.
While it is not uncommon for the Singapore government to update its enforcement powers in response to new challenges from a digital environment, the select committee set up by parliament to examine and make recommendations on the issue of online falsehoods notably took the step of holding a series of high-profile public hearings in March 2018. These hearings were highly publicized and commented on locally and internationally at the time. The POFMA, however, ultimately passed without issue.
The OSMAA added new provisions to the existing Broadcasting Act which apply to “online communication services” (OCS – this term currently covers only social media service providers but may be extended later). Broadly, OSMAA requires OCS providers proactively to block “egregious content” but also empowers the government to issue directions to OCS providers to do so. Under the OSMAA, egregious content includes material that advocates or instructs self-harm or various forms of serious physical harm, sexual abuse, or terrorism; exploits children; negatively depicts racial or religious groups; or advocates for activity that would increase risks to public health.
Fighting fake news: Illustration from a government statement about an article that authorities deemed to have made false assertions (Credit: www.gov.sg)
The OSMAA also requires such service providers to comply with a code of practice issued by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA). IMDA has released a draft code of practice for online safety, which has not yet been implemented. The draft code puts forth high level recommendations around measures to increase user safety (such as community guidelines and standards, content moderation measures, and tools to enable users to manage their own safety), enable users to report concerning content or unwanted interactions, and ensure that OCS providers are accountable to users and the IMDA.
Apart from content moderation, Singapore appears to take a lighter touch in regulating other aspects of digital platforms. In November 2022, however, the Advisory Committee on Platform Workers issued a report containing 12 recommendations to protect platform workers. Broadly, the committee recommended that platform workers should not be classified as employees but should be provided with basic protections, including compensation for work injuries, payment into the national mandatory retirement scheme, the Central Provident Fund (CPF), at similar rates to employees, and creation of mechanisms for representation. The government has accepted these recommendations and is working to implement them from 2024.
Singapore has longstanding content requirements and enforcement powers in the context of broadcast, print and online media. I would view recent developments primarily as intended to bring social media platforms under a similar level of control and to ensure that the government has legal powers to intervene by requiring platforms to take down content which it finds objectionable.
That said, enactment of the POFMA was no doubt influenced by international discussion around “fake news”, which rose in prominence during the US 2016 election campaign and the administration of president Donald Trump, as well as the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which a British consulting firm collected the personal data of millions of Facebook users and used it for predominantly for political advertising, without users’ express consent.
Be SURE - Source, Understand, Research, Evaluate: Government public-service graphic on how to discern real news from fake (Credit: www.gov.sg)
The OSMAA appears to be motivated by the same concerns around protecting users (especially children) from harmful online content to those which underpin similar legislative initiatives internationally such as the Digital Services Act in the European Union and the Online Privacy Bill in Australia. The influence of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, can also clearly be seen in the OSMAA’s definition of “egregious content”, which notably includes content that “advocates engaging in conduct in a way that obstructs or is likely to obstruct any public health measure carried out in Singapore or results or is likely to result in a public health risk in Singapore.”
Singapore’s largely hands-off approach to platform regulation outside of content moderation is in line with the government’s main policy considerations since Singapore gained independence in 1965: promoting economic development while working to maintain harmonious relations between Singapore’s diverse ethnic and religious groups.
I do not believe that there is major societal demand for greater regulation of digital platforms or concern about privacy or competition issues. The economic development narrative is still very influential in Singapore’s policymaking and public discourse. In my experience, Singaporeans for the most part accept the guiding principle that as Singapore is a small country with minimal natural resources, technocratic management of the economy, including adoption of business-friendly policies and promotion of new technologies, is necessary and desirable to maintain economic growth and attract foreign capital and investment. In this regard, Singapore tries to position itself in the global economy as a meeting point between East and West and has successfully attracted Chinese technology companies such as TikTok as well as other regional “unicorns” to use Singapore as a base for their global operations.
Concerns around maintaining “racial and religious harmony” are deep seated, however. Singapore is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. Early in its independence, in the 1960s, Singapore also experienced traumatic race riots and uncertainty from its geopolitical position, especially worries that any perceived mistreatment of Singapore’s minority Malay Muslim community (about 20 percent of the population) would give neighboring countries a pretext to take action against Singapore. These concerns continue to inform Singapore’s content regulations and can clearly be seen in the OSMAA’s definition of “egregious content”, which includes “content dealing with matters of race or religion in a way that is likely to cause feelings of enmity, hatred, ill will or hostility against, or contempt for or ridicule of, different racial or religious groups in Singapore.”
In my experience, the use of digital platforms is well established in Singapore, and digital platforms have become an accepted fact of life for the majority of Singaporeans. Singapore is a highly connected society with some of the highest mobile penetration rates in the world. Singaporeans commonly use ridesharing and food delivery apps, especially given the high costs of private vehicles, which prevent may Singaporeans from owning cars. Social media use is common, and the messaging service WhatsApp has become the default mode of communication with businesses and service providers and among colleagues.
To the best of my knowledge, there are few major challenges to platform governance in Singapore. A possible issue going forward, however, may be a tech divide between large multinational companies and small-and-medium enterprises (SMEs). The government devotes significant resources to awareness- and capacity-building for local SMEs. It is unclear how successful these efforts have been. Singapore has many features that make it unique internationally, but it has tried to present itself as a thought leader and model for policymaking and national development, especially in Asia and Africa. Singapore’s approach to platform regulation – which is largely hands-off outside of content regulation – may become an attractive model for other jurisdictions that share its priorities.
This article was developed from an interview given during Digital Asia Hub’s Platform Futures Workshop 2023. All views in this article are expressed in the author’s personal capacity and do not reflect the views of any organization to which the author is, or has at any time been, affiliated.