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Do new Singapore laws threaten internet privacy?

From third world to first, Singapore has a success story like no other country. While the small city-island is often called a global financial and technological hub, Singapore is ranked only 160th out of 180 countries in the World’s Press Freedom Index. Recently, authorities passed a foreign interference law allowing them to have more control over internet content. Is the Singaporean government moving towards an authoritarian state, as some experts warn?

Carlos Martinez

Carlos Martinez

Oct 13, 2021 · 3 min read

Do new Singapore laws threaten internet privacy?

Understanding the new law

The Foreign Interference Countermeasures Act (FICA) prevents foreign entities from interfering with local politics and allows the government to censor unwanted content. This includes:

  • Blocking social media accounts that are considered hostile.
  • Blocking apps on the App Store and Google Play.
  • Obliging internet service providers to block certain content from being shown in Singapore.
  • Requesting users’ data from service providers.
  • Identifying individuals and organizations operating as proxies of foreign agents.

The new law has received wide criticism from the opposition and human rights organizations. Many privacy experts believe that FICA gives too much power to the government, and it can be easily abused. Who can guarantee that this law won’t be used to silence opposition politicians, independent media, or any critical voices?

In 2019, Singapore passed a “fake news” law allowing the government to tackle the spread of false information and fake news. This law allows authorities to block websites, control content on social media, and prosecute suspected culprits of such content.

While controlling the online world doesn’t go along with freedom of speech, local politicians have their arguments.

The “foreign actor” threat

75.9% of Singapore's population is of Chinese descent, 15% of Malay, and 7.5% of Indian. One of the main challenges the newly established republic faced in the 60s was mitigating the tension between different ethnic groups.

“Our racial and religious mix is easily exploitable by different countries, and we see a steady build-up of different narratives which is being very cleverly done,” K. Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Law, commented with regard to the reasons behind the new law.

Some political journalists speculate that FICA is targeting China, whose influence is steadily growing in Singapore. There are fears that the Chinese government is trying to convince Singaporean Chinese to support their political agenda, which could be lethal for a small and diverse country.

In 2018, the public healthcare cluster SingHealth suffered a cyber attack that resulted in the exposed personal data of 1.5 million patients. It is believed that the same foreign actor was responsible for more cyber attacks in Singapore. For the last few years, the country has seen a spike in hostile information campaigns targeting its Chinese speakers.

How social media incites violence

Social media can be a powerful weapon and could even be responsible for a burst of violence. In June, an investigation found that Facebook’s algorithm was promoting posts inciting military violence against the protesters in the midst of a coup in Myanmar. Unfortunately, this was not the first time this happened.

In 2018, at the beginning of the Rohingya crisis, hate speech and fake news in Myanmar saw a huge spike. Hateful posts by anti-Rohingya supporters spread throughout the country, escalating the crisis even further.

According to Facebook’s whistleblower Frances Haugen, the social media giant is also responsible for ethical violence in Ethiopia. Haugen revealed that Facebook knows that engagement-based ranking is dangerous but doesn’t do anything to implement the necessary technical solutions to control it.

In the light of the latest Facebook scandal, can you blame culturally diverse countries like Singapore for wanting to have more control over online content?

Social media was originally supposed to connect people but outgrew its purpose a long time ago.

The Wild West

According to Haugen, 87% of the money Facebook spends on fighting fake news and misinformation is directed at content in English. Countries like Singapore, Ethiopia, or Myanmar are left aside, and this is one of the reasons why propaganda and hate speech can spread so fast.

Nobody noticed when social media turned into the Wild West. However, it can't stay like that forever, because the price we’ll have to pay might be too high.

The new foreign interference law in Singapore is controversial, to say the least. Giving the government more tools to control the internet is never a good idea. The law can be abused, and people may lose their rights to online privacy. However, it’s obvious that the current social media policies and misinformation will encourage more countries to tighten their laws.