Singapore: Amendments proposed to Broadcasting Act to ban egregious content material on social media

In letter

The Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) tabled the Online Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill (“Bill“) for its first reading in Parliament on 3 October 2022, setting out proposed regulations of providers of online communication services (OCS) with significant reach or impact accessible by any Singapore end-user, as well as measures to prevent access to egregious content.

The aim of the bill is to enhance online user safety, particularly for children, and to curb the spread of harmful content on OCS.

Designated providers of such OCS will have to comply with Codes of Practice (“codes“) issued by the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) to enhance online safety for Singapore end-users and curb the spread of harmful content on their service.

Such harmful content includes the following:

  • sexual content
  • Violent content
  • Suicide and self-harm content
  • cyberbullying content
  • Content endangering public health
  • Content facilitating vice and organized crime

Along with internet-access service providers, designated OCS providers will also be subject to directions from IMDA that disable, stop and block access to harmful content to Singapore end-users. Subjects of these directions must take all reasonably practicable steps to comply.

In proposing this Bill, the MCI took into account feedback received in its earlier public consultation on proposed measures to enhance online safety for Singapore-based users of social media services, released on 13 July 2022 (“consultation“). Please see our earlier alert (Government proposes Codes of Practice to regulate harmful online content on social media) summarizing the proposals.

This alert sets out the important sections in the bill that providers of social media services, the first of the designated OCS, should expect.

When enacted, the Bill will significantly amend the Broadcasting Act 1994 (BA). To avoid the double regulation of an online communications service as a licensable broadcasting service, the BA will be amended to create 2 different regimes.

The BA will be extended to regulate all providers of OCS, both provided internally or externally from Singapore. Currently, the OCS designated in the Fourth Schedule refers only to social media services.

The regulation of social media services will apply to all content published on the internet, even those published before the date of the amendments in the bill come into law, so long as the content remains accessible to a Singapore end-user of the service on or after that date.

The definition of OCS, however, excludes some electronic services, such as transmissions of short text or multimedia messages.

The Bill defines “egregious content” to include the following content:

  • Advocating suicide or self-harm, physical or sexual violence and terrorism
  • Depicting child sexual exploitation
  • Posing public health risk in Singapore
  • Likely to cause racial and religious disharmony in Singapore

The Bill also provides that it is an offense if the OCS provider fails to stop where it knows, or ought reasonably to know, that it provides egregious content, and yet fails to comply with a section 45H direction.

The IMDA will be empowered to issue any of the following directions under section 45H to the OCS provider of egregious content:

  • To disable and prevent access by Singapore end-users
  • To stop delivery or communication of content to Singapore end-users

During the consultation, industry groups requested flexibility on the timelines for content removal, taking into consideration the severity of the harmful content and the resources of the service. The MCI assured that the IMDA would clearly specify the egregious content of concern when issuing these directions to social media services, and the timeline will take into account the need to mitigate users’ exposure to the spread of egregious content on the services.

Additionally, if the IMDA is satisfied that an OCS provider, given either of the above section 45H directions, has failed to comply with that direction; and an internet access service has control over the Singapore end-user’s access to the content provided by the OCS provider, the IMDA may issue a section 45I blocking direction to the provider of that internet access service.

However, the Bill offers protections to providers of OCS or internet access services against civil and criminal liability for anything done (or omitted to be done) in the course of the OCS complying with a section 45H direction or section 45I blocking direction, if done with reasonable care and in good faith.

Failure to comply with the directions could be an offence, punishable on conviction with a fine of SGD 1 million for an OCS provider not complying with a section 45H direction and SGD 500,000 for an internet access service not complying with a section 45I direction.

Under the Bill, IMDA powers do not extend to private communications.

IMDA will designate an OCS with significant reach or impact in Singapore as a Regulated OCS (ROCS), subject to compliance with Codes of Practice (COPs) to be issued by IMDA under the BA. There is currently no legislative guidance on the meaning of “significant reach or impact.”

The COPs may require ROCS providers to put measures on their services in place to mitigate the risks of danger to Singapore users from exposure to harmful content and provide accountability to their users on such measures.

Section 45L(4) sets out the range of requirements that may be imposed by the COPs on ROCS providers, as follows:

  • Establishing systems or processes that the IMDA will consider appropriate to do the following:
    1. Prevent Singapore users (particularly children) from accessing content that presents a material risk of significant harm
    2. Mitigate and manage the risks of danger from content on its service to Singapore users
  • Complying with procedures such as the following:
    1. Preparing and submitting annual audits and accountability reports to ascertain compliance and report on the effectiveness of their measures to combat harmful content
    2. Reporting information to the IMDA about the measures they have implemented to ensure Singapore users can use their service in a safe manner
    3. Conducting risk assessments on the systemic risks brought about by the service and taking reasonable and effective measures aimed at mitigating those risks
  • Collaborating or cooperating with the conducting of research studies by IMDA-approved experts to allow IMDA to understand the nature and level of the inherent risks in the ROCS and the evolution and severity of these risks

The IMDA may also provide practical guidance on what content presents a “material risk of significant harm” to Singapore users, as the term “significant harm” is currently not defined.

Although the COPs will not have legislative effect, section 45M imposes a duty on every ROCS provider to take all reasonably practicable steps to comply with an applicable COP when issued. An ROCS provider that fails to do so may be liable for either of the following actions:

  • Ordered by the IMDA to pay a penalty of up to SGD 1 million
  • Directed to take steps to remedy the failure

Any non-compliance with IMDA’s direction to remedy is an offense, for which on conviction the ROCS provider will be liable for a fine.

The Second Reading of the Bill in Parliament is scheduled for November 2022, at which the Bill is expected to pass into law, likely with minimal or no changes, given the extensive industry and public consultations held by the MCI prior to drafting the Bill. The MCI has not yet released the commencement date for the amended BA.

In the meantime, the MCI has encouraged social media services to put in place systems and processes to safeguard against harmful online content. MCI has indicated it will adopt an outcome-based approach towards enhancing online safety that will provide social media services with some flexibility to develop and implement the most appropriate solutions to tackle harmful online content on their services, taking into account their unique operating models.

The MCI also encourages social media services to increase efforts to raise users’ awareness of the safety features available on their services, and to convey information on self-help resources to users.

One important feature will be providing young users and their parents and guardians with access to tools that enable them to manage exposure to harmful content and unwanted interactions. These include tools to limit the visibility of young users’ accounts to the public, and to restrict the people who can contact and interact with them.

We would be happy to provide you with specific advice tailored to your needs on how best to prepare for the incoming measures expected under the amended BA.

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