The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has introduced a new bill aimed at countering deliberate, hostile campaigns of misinformation by foreign countries in Singapore's domestic politics.
Called the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill, it endows the Minister for Home Affairs with powers to investigate and counter hostile information campaigns (HICs), and creates greater transparency in political donations.
Powers of Home Affairs Minister
Under the bill, introduced in Parliament on Sep. 13, the Minister for Home Affairs may issue directions to various entities, such as:
- Social media services
- Relevant electronic services
- Internet access services
- People who own or run websites, blogs or social media pages
This is intended to help the authorities investigate and counter hostile communications activity of foreign origin.
Various directions may be issued
The minister may issue Technical Assistance Directions (1) to the above-mentioned entities where suspicious content is carried, to disclose information required for the authorities to determine if the harmful communications activity is being undertaken by or on behalf of a foreign principal.
TADs can be issued if the minister suspects that there are preparations or plans to undertake an online communication activity in Singapore by or on behalf of a foreign principal, and the minister is of the opinion that it is in the public interest to issue the direction.
If there is a reason that social media or other electronic service accounts are being used to wage HICs, the minister can issue Account Restriction Directions (2). This will require service providers to block content in these accounts from being viewed in Singapore.
The bill also grants take-down powers against content that may cause immediate and significant harm in Singapore, such as inciting violence.
A Stop Communication (End-User) Direction (3) will require the communicator to cease communication of specific HIC content to viewers in Singapore.
A Disabling Direction (4) will require Internet intermediaries to stop the communication of specific HIC content in Singapore.
If Internet intermediaries or communicators fail to comply with these directions, the minister may order Internet access service providers to block access to the HIC content through an Access Blocking Direction (5).
A Service Restriction Direction (6) will require social media services, relevant electronic services and Internet service providers to restrict the dissemination of HIC content, like disabling or limiting functions that allow content to become viral. This is targeted at a series of content that may be continuously published.
An App Removal Direction (7) can be issued to app distribution services to stop apps known to be used by foreign principals to conduct HICs, from being downloaded in Singapore. This direction can be given if the app has already been slapped with one other direction (except for a TAD or another ARD).
Various parties may also be required to carry a mandatory government message to warn Singaporeans about a HIC. This is the Must-Carry Order (8), which has four levels:
- Class 1 Must-Carry Direction requires the communicator to carry the message.
- Class 2 Must-Carry Direction requires social media services or relevant electronic services where HIC content is carried to do likewise.
- Class 3 Must-Carry Direction requires social media services, relevant electronic services, as well as telecommunication companies, newspapers and broadcasting licensees to carry a mandatory message if a HIC is ongoing, even if the content has not been carried on their platform.
- Class 4 Must-Carry Direction requires the owner or operator of a Proscribed Online Location to carry a message on the online location, so that Singaporeans accessing it are aware of its proscription.
In order to cripple funding for harmful online content done by or on behalf of a foreign principal, the Disgorgement Direction (9) requires Singaporeans (whether in Singapore or another country) and locally-registered entities to return money or material support they received for doing so. This can be either returned to the ones who provided the funding, or be seized by the authorities.
When can the directions be issued?
If the following criteria are met:
- There is communications activity taking place, or has already taken place.
- The communications activity is conducted by or on behalf of a foreign principal.
- There is information or material published in Singapore as a result of the communications activity.
- After having regard to the circumstances of the case, the minister assesses that it is in the public interest to authorise the giving of these directions.
Then the directions from (2) to (9) may be issued.
Proscribed Online Locations
But the bill doesn't stop there.
Not only can the minister target hostile communications, he or she may target platforms too, such as websites created by foreign principals to wage HICs against Singapore.
Once the website or platform has been hit with at least one direction (excluding TADs), then the minister can proscribe it. These Proscribed Online Locations (POLs) must then declare themselves as such, and no one will be allowed to purchase advertisement space on these POLs or on other websites that promote the POLs.
The aim is to discredit and de-monetise these POLs in order to stem their ability to mount further HICs against Singapore.
An independent Reviewing Tribunal, chaired by a sitting High Court Judge and comprising two other persons outside of the government, will be set up to hear appeals against HIC directions issued by the minister.
The decisions made by the Reviewing Tribunal will be final and binding on all parties.
The government proposes that such a Tribunal hear appeals against HIC directions instead of having such appeals heard in open court, because sensitive intelligence with national security implications may be involved.
Singapore is not immune to these attempts at foreign interference in the politics of other countries, noted MHA.
In the 1980s, the First Secretary of the United States (US) Embassy in Singapore, Hank Hendrickson, cultivated a group of Singaporean lawyers to join opposition politics and contest the 1988 General Election.
More recently, when Singapore faced bilateral issues with "another country" in late 2018 and 2019, there was an "abnormal spike" in online comments critical of Singapore on social media, MHA said.
MHA also noted that these posts, made by anonymous accounts, sought to create an artificial impression of opposition to Singapore’s positions.
Photo via K Shanmugam/Facebook and Free-Photos/Pixabay.
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