Online Safety bill to regulate social media services to protect users, particularly children, from harmful content: Josephine Teo

The bill will also allow IMDA to impose penalties on social media platforms that do not take action.

Matthias Ang | November 09, 2022, 05:58 PM

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The Online Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill debated in Parliament on Nov. 8 and 9 will create a new part in the Broadcasting Act to regulate “Online Communication Services”, specifically social media services, Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo said in Parliament on Nov. 8.

Users are more likely to consume harmful content from social media

Speaking at the second reading of the bill, Teo said that if harmful content, such as sexual content, cyberbullying, and violent content, existed only on websites, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) would be able to deal with them under the existing Broadcasting Act.

However, users are much more likely to consume content from social media feeds, where such harmful content can be pushed via algorithms, and spread quickly through their social connections, Teo noted.

For now, only one type of Online Communication Service in the Schedule will be specified, 'Social Media Services'.

A survey by the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) in June 2022 also found that about three in five users from experienced harmful online content on social media platforms.

This is the highest proportion compared to other platforms such as e-commerce sites, search engines, and news site, she noted.

In addition, the entities controlling the biggest and most popular online communication services or platforms accessible in Singapore all operate from outside of the country, and presently fall outside the legal remit of the Broadcasting Act.

Bill will require social media services to adhere to Codes of Practice

IMDA will also be able to designate online communication services with significant reach or impact in Singapore, and require such services, via Codes of Practice, to put in place measures to keep Singapore safe.

Such services will be required to have systems and processes to minimise Singapore users’ exposure to, and mitigate the impact of harmful content on their platforms.

Teo elaborated that by stating in the Codes the outcomes which regulated services must meet, IMDA aims to provide clarity on what the services must do to protect users, while allowing some flexibility.

The social media platforms designated by IMDA will therefore be expected to minimise users' exposure to harmful content, particularly children, and empower them with tools to manage their own safety

They should also have an easy way to report harmful content and unwanted interactions and provide transparency on the effectiveness of their measures.

Draft code for social media platforms has already been issued

Teo added that in October 2022, IMDA issued a draft copy of the "Code of Practice for Online Safety."

The draft follows an "extensive" study of international online safety legislation, along with proposals and engagements with major social media platforms in Singapore which include Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and HardwareZone.

Teo said that the social media services consulted were receptive to the proposals laid out in the draft Code and the Bill, and they support the Government’s commitment to combat harmful online content.

Once the bill is passed, IMDA will further consult with the relevant social media platforms, before finalising the Code, she said.

Bill will also allow IMDA to act as an "online firefighter"

The bill will also allow IMDA to act as an "online firefighter" to direct any social media platforms to disable Singapore users' access to "egregious" content, and to stop such content from being transmitted to other Singapore users via other channels or accounts. Teo cited two past incidents as examples.

The first occurred in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, when supermarkets were purportedly running out of toilet paper.

A social media post surfaced, suggesting that people use the Bible or the Quran as toilet paper. However, it was not removed, and IMDA had to step in to engage the platform.

As for the second incident, it demonstrated that egregious content could be found on non-designated social media services not subject to the Code of Practice for Online Safety.

Here, the incident pertained to a poll published on a social media platform in May 2021, which sexualised local female Islamic teachers, asked users to rank them, and further promoted sexual violence against them.

The minister likened both incidents to "fires" which require firefighters who are properly equipped to act quickly and to minimise serious harm.

Bill does not give IMDA carte blanche to issue directions

Teo clarified that the bill does not give IMDA carte blanche to issue directions.

IMDA will not be able to issue directions in respect of private communications. Those will remain private.

Directions can only be issued for certain categories of egregious content relating to user safety, defined as content which includes advocating terrorism, suicide and self-harm, violence (including sexual violence), child sexual exploitation, posing public health risk, and content likely to undermine racial and religious harmony.

When dealing with content that requires the expertise of other agencies, IMDA will consult them accordingly. For example, when assessing content pertaining to public health measures and risks, IMDA will consult the Ministry of Health and its experts.

Bill also allows IMDA to impose penalties on platforms that do not take action

The bill will also allow IMDA to take regulatory action against platforms that do not take "all reasonably practicable steps" to comply with an applicable Code of Practice.

Such actions include a financial penalty, or a possible criminal offence punishable with a fine, if a service does not comply.

With regard to egregious content, non-compliance with a direction by IMDA will also be a criminal offence, punishable by a fine.

Teo said that respondents to MCI's public consultation have agreed with both the need for laws, as well as how the government cannot succeed alone in ensuring the safety of the public.

"To ensure that safety is upheld for Singapore users, we need online communication services to be held accountable. Equally, we need the support of everyone in the community to keep each other safe online."

Top screenshot via CNA