The Online Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill, introduced by Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo, was passed unanimously in Parliament on Nov. 9.
The bill seeks to amend the existing Broadcasting Act (BA) to make social media platforms, known as online communication services, liable if they fail to protect local users from online harms.
The failure to comply may attract a fine of up to $1 million, or a direction to have their social media services blocked in Singapore.
Changes to Broadcasting Act that affect online communication services
The bill proposes two new mechanisms to fall under the existing Broadcasting Act (BA).
Currently, the BA does not cover entities that operate outside of Singapore.
Firstly, the Online Communication Services (OCS), which refers to electronic services that allow users to access or communicate content via the Internet or deliver content to other users, will be regulated by the BA.
Within a specified OCS, an OCS with "significant reach" will be designated as the Regulated Online Communication Services (ROCS) and will be required to comply by a Code of Practice (COP), which consist measures limiting the exposure to egregious content online.
COP is expected to roll out from as early as 2023.
Examples of such content include but are not limited to those advocating suicide or self-harm, physical or sexual violence, and terrorism, as well as content that depicts child sexual exploitation, poses a public health risk in Singapore, causes racial and religious disharmony in Singapore.
The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) will be able to direct the OCS to disable access to egregious content and prevent specified accounts with such content from communicating, as well as instruct internet access service providers to block non-compliant OCS.
However, these directions will not apply to private communications.
Social Media Services
Next, the Social Media Service (SMS), a type of OCS, where the electronic service's sole or primary purpose allows two or more users to interact online, including sharing and communicating content between one another.
This includes Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok.
It will be specified in a new Schedule under the BA.
Questions from MPs
16 Members of Parliament (MP) rose to pose questions when the bill was read a second time in Parliament on Oct. 3.
Government may consider other types of OCS
Teo responded to several MPs who asked if there are more types of OCS, besides the SMS, saying that the government is prioritising those that are widely used in Singapore, and where the safety risks have become or are becoming apparent.
She added that while the government is starting with SMS, they will consider other electronic services, such as online gaming,
Zooming in to the services within a specified OCS, Teo said the decision to designation a service as ROC depends on how much reach or impact it has with Singaporeans.
IMDA will consult these services before designating them and publish the list of ROC services thereafter.
Private communications, what's what and how to seek recourse
With regard to why private messaging services, such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, and private communications were excluded from IMDA's jurisdiction, a concern that several MPs raised, Teo said this was due to "legitimate privacy concerns".
Users who encounter harmful messages or unwanted interactions in private messages will be able to seek recourse, like blocking or reporting, as IMDA will require designated SMSs to provide such user reporting mechanisms throughout its service.
They can also provide feedback on egregious content through these mechanisms.
However, Teo stressed that labelling a group or communications as private does not make it so.
For instance, private groups with "very large memberships" and/ or those that the public can become a member easily are no different from non- private communication on a social media service.
These groups can thus be directed by IMDA, if necessary.
What's covered in the bill
Several MPs wanted to find out if other types of online content, such as those related to drug abuse, vice and illegal activities and organised crime, can be added to the bill's definition of egregious content.
Teo said online content on drug abuse may constitute egregious content if it causes risk to public health, which is stated in the Bill.
The Bill will also cover "problematic content" such as non-consensual sharing of intimate images, as well as content likely to cause feelings of enmity, hatred, ill will or hostility between other demographic segment and/ or advocate or instruct on violence, including sexual violence.
Teo responded to several MPs who were concerned about cyberbullying, saying that services are required to assess and act on the act itself, and on related that is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to the user.
She added that those who are being harassed may seek recourse through existing laws such as the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA).
IMDA will issue a set of draft guidelines giving examples of the content covered and it will be finalised with COP.
And here's what's not covered
On the flip side, the bill does not cover in-game loot boxes.
Teo noted that MP for Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC) Leon Perera spoke at length about the problem of loot boxes from online gambling.
However, online gambling loot boxes falls under the Gambling Control Act and is monitored by the Gambling Regulation Authority.
She invited MPs to file a Parliamentary Question if they wish to discuss loot boxes in greater detail.
The bill also does not cover content that go that do not threaten the safety of individuals and communities online.
This means that what constitutes egregious content will stop short of those related to lifestyles that go against traditional norms of society, participation in foreign armed conflicts, animal cruelty, and commercialised nudity, all examples that Bishan–Toa Payoh GRC MP Saktiandi Supaat raised.
Teo said doing so will make the Bill "unwieldy", the government's proposals "lacking in focus", and the results likely ineffective.
In the same vein, Teo said the government will not be streamlining all online related harms into the Bill for the meantime as their approach is to identify and address specific areas of harm in a targeted manner instead.
IMDA will decide which content is egregious while taking context into consideration
Teo acknowledged the points raised by several MPs that egregious content can take many forms and exist in grey areas which can be difficult to define clearly.
As such, IMDA will take into consideration the context in which the content is presented when determining if it is egregious.
The government will also engage the public on measures by SMSs' to minimise exposure to harmful content and share the feedback with these services.
Teo said the Bill will not be used to curtail democratic rights or freedom of expression, both points raised by Perera and Aljunied GRC MP Gerald Giam.
"I would also like to remind Members of the overarching purpose of the Bill – that is, to provide a safe environment and conditions that protects online users, while respecting freedom of speech and expression as enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution."
Teo addressed Giam's suggestion for Singapore to mirror the provisions on journalistic content in the United Kingdom's (UK) draft Online Safety Bill, saying the draft provisions are "far from final" and added that the UK draft Bill has drawn criticism as it may be exploited by bad actors.
She also said: "This Bill is about online safety. It has no interest in curbing legitimate journalistic content."
How the Bill will be enforced
She responded to several MPs, saying that IMDA will be enforcing the Bill.
Besides that, IMDA will also engage services that do comply with COP or with their directions and dole out fines of up to S$$1 million if there is no "meaningful response or mutually acceptable solution" and the services continue acting in breach.
Services have to act on the direction within IMDA's stipulated timeline, where the speed is proportionate to the content's potential harm, which could be a matter of hours for particularly egregious content, especially those related to terrorism.
Additionally, IMDA may further direct an Internet Access Service Providers to block the services and stop users in Singapore from accessing.
Internet service providers such as Singtel, StarHub and M1, may also face fines of up to S$500,000 for failing comply with IMDA's direction to block said services.
Acknowledging that users with VPN may still be able to access these blocked services, Teo said: "Just like fire codes cannot prevent people from playing with fire, neither can we shield people completely if they intentionally seek out harmful content online."
Protecting Singaporeans, especially the young, from online harm and rendering support to victims
The Bill will protect young users, in particular, addressing the concerns raised by several MPs about the impact of harmful online content on young users.
IMDA's COP will have additional safeguards, including minimising their exposure to inappropriate content and providing tools for children or their parents to manage their safety online, and mandate services to provide differentiated accounts to children.
These differentiated accounts will have default safety settings that are robust and set to more restrictive levels that are age-appropriate, where individuals will be warned of implications if they opt out of these settings.
With regard to minimum age requirements and its enforcement, Teo said most major SMSs already have a minimum age limit of 13 years old for registration, and some use personal data or employ technological tools to counter false age declarations.
Additionally, some services allow users to reports underage accounts, which will be suspended.
However, imposing and enforcing minimum age requirements may not be a viable option at the moment.
Teo said: "However, there is currently no international consensus on the standards for effective and reliable age verification by social media services which Singapore can also reliably reference."
Victims of online abuse can seek legal advice and support from counsellors and pro bono lawyers from a support centre that will be jointly launched by SG Her Empowerment and Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO).
Victims of gender-based online harms, such as image-based sexual abuse, will be able to seek recourse under POHA where the online harm amounts to harassment.
In her conclusion, Teo said the bill seeks to create a safer online environment for Singapore users.
Users will have tools to manage their own safety and will be equipped with the information needed to make informed decisions when using online services, while online services will be held accountable for their systems, processes, and actions.
The government will step in to protect users where there is egregious content that undermines racial and religious harmony.
"Shared responsibility, parental guidance and active individual involvement will play a key role in ensuring that even in the face of harmful online content, users, including children, can stay safe online," Teo said.
She acknowledged that all this is not without its challenges, saying: "Ultimately, we must recognise that there is no single measure that will assure us of online safety. We will need laws, codes, education, user reporting and a whole range of interventions. We will also need to keep updating our measures to deals with new risks."
Teo said she was heartened that the members of the house are united on their bill and thanked them for their unanimous support.
Teo first announced during the Committee of Supply debate in March 2022 that new measures related to tackling harmful content online will be rolled out in Singapore.
On Oct. 3, the bill was introduced for its first reading in Parliament.
The debate on the bill lasted for two days, from Nov. 8 – Nov. 9 and all the members supported the bill.