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The rapid spread of information—and misinformation—has significant consequences. To tackle this issue, Singapore introduced the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA).

This legislation aims to curb the spread of false information online, ensure that the public is well-informed, and maintain trust in the information they receive. 

What is POFMA, and what does it cover?

POFMA seeks to prevent the electronic communication of falsehoods (i.e., false statements of fact or misleading information) and safeguard against the use of online platforms for such communication.

The act also introduces various measures to counteract the effects of such communication and prevent the misuse of online accounts and bots.

Why was POFMA implemented?

POFMA was implemented to address these growing concerns over the scourge of fake news and misinformation, mainly through online and social media platforms.

What does POFMA cover?

POFMA focuses on statements of fact, defined as statements that a reasonable person seeing, hearing, or otherwise perceiving would consider representations of fact.

Under section 3 of POFMA, statements communicated to one or more end-users in Singapore through the internet and on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as MMS and SMS, will fall under POFMA’s purview. 

The act is not intended to cover opinions, criticisms, satire, or parody. Furthermore, the Singapore Court of Appeal upheld in a 2021 landmark judgement that POFMA is constitutional, meaning it does not restrict the right to freedom of speech under Article 14(1)(a) of the Singapore Constitution.

A statement identified as a false statement of fact under POFMA continues to be protected under the Constitution until it has been determined by the courts to be false.

What does POFMA prohibit?

POFMA prohibits the communication of false statements of fact in Singapore. A “false statement of fact” is a false or misleading statement that a reasonable person would consider to be a representation of fact.

Under section 7 of POFMA, a person must not commit any acts, whether in or outside of Singapore, to communicate a statement which that person knows or has reason to believe is a falsehood, and the communication of that falsehood in Singapore is likely to:

  • Be prejudicial to Singapore’s security
  • Be prejudicial to public health, public safety, public tranquillity, or public finances
  • Be prejudicial to the friendly relations of Singapore with other countries
  • Influence the outcome of a presidential election, general election, by-election, or referendum
  • Incite feelings of enmity, hatred, or ill-will between different groups of persons
  • Diminish public confidence in the government

Individuals in breach of section 7 will be liable to a fine of up to SGD 50,000 and a term of imprisonment of up to 5 years. For non-individuals (e.g., online media platforms run by tech companies), a fine of up to SGD 500,000 will be imposed.

Where a fake online account or bot is used to spread such falsehoods, offenders who are individuals will be liable to a fine of up to SGD 100,000 and a term of imprisonment of up to 10 years. A fine of up to SGD 1 million for non-individuals will be imposed.

Exemptions to POFMA

Under section 7 of POFMA, the prohibition against the communication of falsehoods does not apply to any act for or that is incidental to the provision of:

  • An internet intermediary service
  • A telecommunication service
  • A service of giving public access to the internet
  • A computing resource service

How is it decided what constitutes a falsehood under POFMA?

In his or her judgment, a Minister of any government agency may assert that a particular statement is false. However, after assessing all the evidence put forward by the parties, the court will make the final decision on whether a statement is false or not.

What can happen if a falsehood has been communicated?

Part 3 Directions

If a falsehood has been communicated, the Minister can issue Directions found in Part 3 of POFMA if it is in the public interest to do so. Non-compliance with a Part 3 Direction is an offence in which individuals can be fined up to SGD 20,000 and imprisoned for up to 12 months. Non-individuals may be liable for a fine of up to SGD 500,000.

The Part 3 Directions include:

  • Correction Direction: Requires the party who communicated the falsehood to put up a notice stating that the falsehood communicated previously was false and a correction to the falsehood and where such a correction can be found.
  • Stop Communication Direction: Requires a person to take necessary steps to ensure that the falsehood is no longer available online to end-users in Singapore, including removal if necessary.

Part 4 Directions

For internet intermediaries and providers of mass media services, any Minister may issue the following directions found in Part 4 of POFMA if a falsehood has been communicated and it is in the public interest to issue such directions:

  • Targeted Correction Direction: Requires an internet intermediary to communicate a correction notice to all end-users who accessed the falsehood via that service.
  • Disabling Direction: Orders an internet service provider to disable end-user access to the falsehood in Singapore.
  • General Correction Direction: Requires a prescribed entity, such as an internet service provider or broadcaster, to communicate a correction notice to its end-users via publication in their newspaper or broadcast or via transmission by a telecommunications service.

Can I be held liable if I did not know I was sharing a falsehood?

You will not be criminally liable if you were unaware you were sharing a falsehood. Criminal sanctions apply only if a person knowingly publishes or shares a falsehood that harms the public interest.

However, Part 3 Directions may still be issued to anyone who communicates a falsehood, even if the person had no knowledge or reason to believe that the communication was a falsehood.

What can happen to websites that repeatedly spread misinformation or falsehoods?

Declaration of an Online Location

Section 32 of POFMA enables a Minister to declare an online location, or website, as a declared online location. This Declaration may specify the online location by its URL, domain name, or any other unique identifier and requires the owner or operator to communicate this to users. Failure to comply can result in fines and imprisonment.

Access Blocking Order

An Access Blocking Order may be issued if paid content on a declared online location is communicated in Singapore or if the owner or operator of a declared online location fails to include a notice that it is subject to a Declaration.

The Info-Communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) may order an internet service provider to restrict access to the declared online location in Singapore where a falsehood is being communicated.

How does POFMA deal with fake accounts or bots that spread falsehoods?

Account Restriction Direction

Under Part 6 of POFMA, any Minister may issue an Account Restriction Direction to order an internet intermediary to shut down fake accounts and bots on its platforms. Factors considered include suspicious activity, account creation date, and any other relevant factors. Non-compliance can result in fines and imprisonment.

Can an appeal be made against a POFMA direction or order?

If an individual or company wants to appeal against a Direction or order issued under POFMA, they must first apply to the Minister who issued the Direction or order to cancel it.

If the Minister refuses, an appeal may be made to the General Division of the High Court to overturn the Direction or order. The appellant must file an originating application and a supporting affidavit within 14 days of the Minister’s refusal.

How to appeal against a direction or order under POFMA

  1. Apply to the Minister: Request the cancellation of the direction or order within 14 days.
  2. File an Appeal to the High Court: If the Minister refuses, appeal within 14 days.
  3. Serve Appeal Documents: Serve the documents on the Attorney-General and appear before a duty registrar for a hearing date.
  4. Attend the High Court Hearing: Present arguments and evidence in court. The court will decide whether to allow or set aside the Direction or order.

What happens if the falsehood originated from overseas?

POFMA applies to communications of falsehoods in Singapore, regardless of their origin. This means falsehoods originating from overseas but communicated in Singapore are still subject to POFMA.

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