Tech giants express concern over Singapore plan to fight fake news

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Global tech giants including Facebook and Twitter on Thursday expressed concern about a possible Singapore plan to bring in a new law to tackle the threat of fake news, saying sufficient rules are already in place.

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Officials of Facebook, Twitter and Google attended a parliamentary hearing on how to counter the threat that Singapore said it was particularly vulnerable to due to its size, its role as a global financial hub and its ethnic and religious mix.

They were among 79 people asked to speak in parliament over the eight days set for the hearing.

The wealthy city state is among the countries looking to introduce legislation, so far unspecified, to rein in fake news, a trend that has stirred concern that such laws could be used to exert government control over the media.

“We do not believe that legislation is the best approach to addressing the issue,” Alvin Tan, Facebook’s head of public policy for Southeast Asia, said in a written submission.

“Singapore already has a variety of existing laws and regulations which address hate speech, defamation and the spreading of false news.”

Singapore ranks 151 among 180 countries rated by the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders, a non-government group that promotes freedom of information.

Lawmakers in the United States and Europe have called for probes into how Facebook allowed Cambridge Analytica to access data on 50 million users and use it to help the election campaign of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Expressing the view that social media networks were not capable of regulating themselves, Singapore’s law minister, K Shanmugam, questioned Facebook official Simon Milner over how “one of the world’s most competent firms” could have breached users’ trust.

“Right now, it doesn’t feel like it,” Milner, the firm’s Asia policy chief, responded. He conceded failure to be upfront about the breach of user data, saying, “We had a moral obligation to do it (notify our users).”

He added, “As I understand it, there was not a legal obligation.”

Milner questioned the premise that a legal framework could be used to decide whether information was fake news, however.

“How do you define ... what is a deliberate online falsehood and what is not? We are skeptical about that.”

Microblogging site Twitter also shared concerns about Singapore’s plans.

“No single company, governmental or non-governmental actor, should be the arbiter of truth,” said Kathleen Reen, Twitter’s director of Public Policy for Asia Pacific.

Reporting by Fathin Ungku; Editing by Jack Kim and Clarence Fernandez