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Social media firms put 'profit above principle' on fake news, Singapore minister says

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Social media firms are hampered by their commercial interests when tackling fake news, Singapore’s law minister said, underlining the need for the city-state’s law against online falsehoods, which critics say stifles free speech.

K. Shanmugam, speaking on Thursday in an interview for broadcast at the Reuters Next conference on Tuesday, defended the city-state’s new law against concern from the likes of Facebook that it is a censorship tool, and fears from rights groups and others that it is used for political gain.

He said the law was necessary because the platforms that often host fake news have business models that depend on “attracting eyeballs”.

The minister pointed to the United States where lawmakers have also chided social media firms for allowing misinformation about the U.S. election to spread, particularly ahead of the storming of the U.S. Capitol last week.

“The tendency has been on the side of the internet platforms to say: hey, it’s free speech, there shouldn’t be any regulation of it,” Shanmugam, who is also Singapore’s home minister, said.

“Let’s be frank, when social media platforms argue against it (regulation), it’s really putting profit above principle.”

Shanmugam said there was a “consensus” developing around the world that tackling fake news can’t be left to the tech platforms, although he said it remained unclear how many countries would follow Singapore with regulatory measures.

FILE PHOTO: Singapore's Law Minister K. Shanmugam speaks to Reuters in Singapore July 31, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) introduced in late 2019 has been called the “most far-reaching legislation of its kind to date” by the Asia Internet Coalition, an association of internet and technology companies.

It allows government ministers to order news outlets, social media users or platforms to carry warnings that their pages or posts contain false statements, and to include links to a government fact-checking website.

There are more stringent actions, fines and even jail for non-compliance.

When ordered to block access to a page last year, Facebook said it contradicted the government’s claim that the law was not a “censorship tool” and joined rights group in saying it could harm freedom of expression in Singapore.

The government says the law only tackles falsehoods and that legitimate criticism and free speech are not affected.

The law ensnared several government critics and opposition parties and politicians in the run up to the city-state’s election in July last year, drawing concern from rights groups like Amnesty International. The law has not been used since.

“The fact that a number of them happen to be opposition politicians, suggests to you as to who then engages in such conduct,” Shanmugam said when asked about those who have fallen foul of the law.

He said the reason for the law’s inactivity since the vote was “because there haven’t been such statements”.

For more coverage from the Reuters Next conference please click here www.reuters.com/business/reuters-next

To watch Reuters Next live, visit here

Reporting by John Geddie; Editing by Sam Holmes

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