New Singapore law requires social media sites to block egregious content ‘within hours’

Photo by ADEM AY on Unsplash

On Wednesday November 9th, 2022, the Singapore Parliament passed a law aimed at strengthening online safety, requiring social media sites to block harmful content within hours. If an online platform refuses to take down the harmful content, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) has the power to issue a direction to Internet access service providers to block access to the platform for users in Singapore.

Singapore is well-known for its strict laws and regulations, designed to maintain peace and order, from its rules surrounding smoking – smoking is banned in all public parks, recreational beaches and along certain waterways – to gambling in online casinos being illegal. This new law comes amid rising concerns surrounding the prevalence of harmful online content, especially in terms of safeguarding particularly vulnerable users such as children.

The bill will give the government power to block harmful online content even if it is created or hosted in foreign countries, with a proposed maximum fine of 1 million SGD if a platform does not comply. However, concerns were raised around how authorities would determine ‘egregious’ content, and questions also emerged around the realm of private messaging on these platforms.

At present, egregious content will be defined in the law to include those advocating terrorism, suicide and self-harm, physical and sexual violence, and child sexual exploitation. It will also include content posing a public health risk or content likely to cause racial and religious disharmony in Singapore.

The government has acknowledged that some egregious content may fall under grey areas, which can be difficult to define clearly. In these circumstances, IMDA will take an objective approach and consider the context in which it is presented. When it comes to private messaging, due to privacy concerns, the bill will not cover the policing of private communications.

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Groups with very large memberships, which could be used to propagate egregious content, will also be included, with the IMDA empowered to take the same actions against them. Other areas were also discussed, with some asking if online gaming would fall under the bill and whether mandatory screen times for young children would be introduced.

While online gaming is a concern, it isn’t currently on the bill, but the Singapore government has advised that they are discussing this issue and will share more details on it at some point. In terms of screen times, the government admits that excessive screen time has been linked to poor development outcomes and that they must ensure that young children do not get hooked on scrolling mindlessly on social media. However, they also feel that if too many areas or platforms are covered in the bill too soon, without proper scrutiny, the bill could become ineffective.

During the debate in Parliament, Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo said that the government is focused on identifying and addressing specific areas of harm in a targeted manner. At this moment of time, they believe it is more important that they put in place legislation that effectively addresses and combats the respective harms, then opening the net too wide.

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