This article was published in The Straits Times on March 28, 2018.
By Viswa Sadasivan
The idea of fresh legislation to tackle deliberate online falsehoods (DOF) is a move in the right direction. Laws should, however, be crafted to avoid punishing the majority of Internet users who play by the rules. They must also not send the wrong signal.
For legislation to receive support, I recommend three considerations.
There should be clarity and transparency. DOF must be defined, with an emphasis on intent and motive for creating and/or distributing the content in question. The criteria for ascertaining this must be clear and the process, transparent. Legislation should focus on cases where national security or social cohesion is threatened. Causal connection must be established, not just correlation. Legislation should demand greater accountability from large online platforms such as Facebook.
The Government should seriously consider creating an office of the Internet Ombudsman tasked with checking facts and assessing cases reported by the public. It should have the powers of a tribunal to demand information and establish guilt. Where necessary, it will refer cases to the Government. Where there is a threat to national security, the Government should act directly.
Legislation must be part of a multi-pronged approach. The development of the "marketplace of ideas" should not be hindered. Journalists - from mainstream media and credible online publications - should be enabled to work with integrity and encouraged to critically appraise policies and developments. Likewise, this would be a good time to consider legislation that gives the public greater access to information. Public education, and self-regulation by Internet players should be facilitated.
Maintaining public trust in the Government and institutions (including the mainstream media) is critical to winning the battle against deliberate online falsehoods.