Singapore is often deemed to be Asia’s main tech hub and a top global alternative to the Silicon Valley. Many of the world’s major tech platforms – including GIFCT founders Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Youtube – have their headquarters for the Asia Pacific region in the Singapore. The government has been active in supporting the tech sector, advocating for an approach that promotes industry self-regulation and strong intellectual property laws.

Singapore’s regulatory framework:

Main bodies overseeing online regulation:

Key takeaways for tech platforms:

  • Singapore’s regulatory framework does not specifically target online terrorist content. However, the prohibition of online content that incites or endorses hatred and strife can be used as a justification to remove terrorist material.
  • All internet content and service providers operating in Singapore need to comply with the Internet Code of Practice, which effectively provides a legal basis for the prohibition of “objectionable” material.
    • If in violation, the Media Development Authority “has the power to impose sanctions, including fines”[1] on tech companies.
  • Under the POFMA, government ministers can order individuals and online platforms to post corrections or take down content that is assessed by the minister to be false or “against the public interest”.

Singapore’s Internet Regulatory Framework

Branding itself as “one of the most-connected countries in the world”, Singapore has developed an Internet Regulatory Framework that sets the scene for its approach to online regulation.  In general, online regulation in Singapore is considered through the lens of media development, falling under the responsibility of the IMDA. Whilst promoting industry self-regulation, media literacy, and cyber wellness, Singapore’s regulatory framework has at its core the idea of “national cohesion and public interest”.[2] For this reason, the existing framework focuses on content that can be deemed “objectionable” – “harmful to Singapore’s racial and religious harmony, or against national interest.”

In light of this, the main requirements for tech platforms operating in Singapore are laid out in the Internet Code of Practice. Most importantly, it covers what online material is prohibited in the country. Here again, the idea of public interest and security, as well as of national harmony, are prevalent.

The idea of ensuring that online content does not hurt Singapore’s “national harmony” and “public interest” is also reflected in the Content Regulation Guidelines set out by IMDA – which also oversees the Regulatory Framework and Code of Practice. Indeed, whilst the guidelines encourage the importance of co-regulation with the industry,[3] they also have at their core the idea of “reflecting societal values and community standards”,  and encouraging platform to be “socially responsible” in ensuring that content “meets with community standards”.

A legal framework for prohibiting incitement

Whilst the Framework states that it does not engage in the monitoring or restriction of individual’s access to online content, the Code of Practice does set some baseline prohibitions on the use of the internet.  Even though regulations in Singapore do not specifically target the issue of terrorist use of the internet, certain prohibitions laid out in the Code of Practice provide a legal baseline for the moderation of certain terrorist online material. Mainly, the prohibition of online content that “glorifies, incites or endorses ethnic, racial or religious hatred, strife or intolerance” can be applied to content used for terrorist incitement.

So-called “fake-news” bill

In May 2019, Singapore introduced a new bill related to the regulation of online content: The Protection of Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill – which came into effect in October 2019. The bill is meant to address the (viral) propagation of false statement on the internet, especially those deemed to be against the public interest by the government. Under this new legislation, any government minister  “will have the power to direct individuals, publishers, internet platforms, and mainstream media to either post corrections or takedown content, based on what the minister deems to be content deemed false and ‘against the public interest’.”

Civil society groups and digital rights experts have expressed concerns regarding POFMA’s potential to negatively impact freedom of expression in the country and hinder public debate. Most concerns revolve around the expansive scope of the law, especially around what is “public interest”, and the fact that government ministers are to make decisions on what constitute misinformation and false content. These concerns were also raised by David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, in a letter to the government of Singapore. Kaye also stressed that POFMA risks pushing tech platforms to over-restrict content, including lawful material.

Following the enactment of POFMA, major tech platforms – including Facebook, Twitter and Google Search – were granted a temporary exemption, which was later suspended due to the Covid-19 crisis. Whilst this exemption acknowledges that tech platforms needs an adaptation period to a legislation that can significantly impact how they moderate content, it also raises questions regarding the non-consideration of smaller tech platforms which might face more difficulties to implement the POFMA bill – especially due to a lack of technical and human resources. Given the penalties that companies can face when not complying, this bears the risk of reduced competition in the tech sector if smaller platforms are not able to catch up or are financially afflicted by the fines.

Towards the moderation of encrypted platforms

The POFMA bill also covers the question of moderation and regulation of closed platforms, including those based on end-to-end-encryption (E2EE), such as messaging apps like WhatsApp, Signal, Wire, or Telegram. Indeed, the so-called “fake news” law does not only apply to social media and content-hosting platforms, but also encrypted apps – however the regulation of encrypted platforms under POFMA has not been enforced so far.

The debate surrounding the regulation of E2EE is not specific to Singapore, and many countries have in recent years expressed their desire to regulate E2EE, often citing counterterrorism and counter child sexual abuse reasons (including the UK and the US). However, Singapore is amongst the firsts to have turned this into law, therefore setting a precedent for regulation of E2EE platforms. Tech companies have fought back against such regulations on the grounds that it risks undermining the security and privacy of users, stressing the technical difficulties of creating a “government backdoor” for security reasons that would not expose users to malevolent actors.

[1] Internet Code of Practice, Infocomm – Media Development Authority, Singapore, 2016

[2] Singapore’s Internet Code of Practice underlines the government’s emphasis on ensuring societal cohesion in the City-State, especially what it labels the country’s “racial and religious harmony”. Following the Christchurch attack, the government of Singapore particularly acknowledged the threat that the combination of violent extremism, terrorism, and internet technology posed to the country’s “social harmony”.

[3] Infocomm also encourages member of the public to signal “objectionable content” to the IMDA.

Resources:

Amnesty International (2020),“Singapore: Social media companies forced to cooperate with abusive fake news law”

Asia Internet Coalition (2020), Toolkit – Addressing online misinformation through legislation

Asia One, “A look into Twitter’s Asia-Pacific headquarters in Singapore”

Chen Siyuan and Chia Chen Wei (2019),  “Singapore’s latest efforts at regulating online hate speech”, Singapore Management University, Research Collection School of Law

Chong Zoe (2018), “Facebook’s Asia team moves to gigantic new headquarters in Singapore”, Cnet

Consultancy.org (2020, “Singapore considered top alternative tech hub to Silicon Valley”

EDB Singapore (2019), “Tech firms head to Singapore amidst Southeast Asia’s growth”

Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, (2019), “Preserving Singapore’s social harmony in the face of emerging threats”, key note address at the at the Roses of Peace Youth Forum Aftermath of Christchurch – Lessons for Singapore

Infocomm – Media Development Authority (2016), “Internet Code of Practice”, Government of Singapore

Infocomm – Media Development Authority, “Internet Regulatory Framework”, Government of Singapore

Kaye David, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression (2019), Letter to the Government of Singapore on The Protection of Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill”. Office of the united Nations High Commission for Human Rights

Mullin Joe (2019), “Fancy New Terms, Same Old Backdoors: The Encryption Debate in 2019”, Electronic Frontier Foundation,

Newman Lily Hay (2020), “The EARN IT Act Is a Sneak Attack on Encryption”, Wired

Pfefferkorn Riana (2020), “THE EARN IT ACT: how to ban end-to-end encryption without actually banning it?”, The Center for Internet and Society

Republic Of Singapore, Government Gazette, Acts Supplement, The Protection of Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, Government of Singapore

Sabbagh Dann (2020), “MI5 chief asks tech firms for ‘exceptional access’ to encrypted messages”, The Guardian,

Ungku Fathin (2019), “Facebook, rights groups hit out at Singapore’s fake news bill”, Reuters,

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2012), Use of the Internet for terrorist purposes

Wong Julia Carrie (2019), “US, UK and Australia urge Facebook to create backdoor access to encrypted messages”, The Guardian


On the importance of “social harmony” in the country, see: Ms  Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, “Preserving Singapore’s social harmony in the face of emerging threats”, key note address at the at the Roses of Peace Youth Forum Aftermath of Christchurch – Lessons for Singapore, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, 30 March 2019