Asia

Proposed law to tackle foreign interference calibrated for the Internet age: Shanmugam

SINGAPORE – The proposed law to tackle foreign interference offers more calibration for the Internet age, explicitly including global online platforms that are often vectors for hostile information campaigns (HICs), said Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam.

In a parliamentary debate on the Bill on Monday (Oct 4), he said that powers available under existing laws to tackle foreign subversion are more blunt than what is proposed under the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (Fica).

Introduced on Sept 13, Fica aims to prevent, detect and disrupt foreign interference in domestic politics conducted through HICs and the use of local proxies.

Such HICs, set out by the Ministry of Home Affairs, include the deployment of a sophisticated range of tools and tactics in a coordinated manner by foreign principals to interfere in domestic political discourse, incite social tensions and undermine sovereignty.

Under current laws, should there be an online campaign, and there is basis to believe that it is inspired by a foreign agency or entity, and that it is prejudicial to national security, investigations can be conducted under the Internal Security Act (ISA), said Mr Shanmugam, who is also Law Minister.

Information, including the writer’s identity, will have to be made available under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC). The writer and anyone else suspected of subversion can be detained, he said.

Any challenge will be heard by the ISA tribunal, not by the High Court, said Mr Shanmugam. This will not be public unless the Internal Security Department decides to make it so.

This applies equally whether the subversion is done online or in the physical world, he said.

One of the “pieces of misinformation” about Fica, said Mr Shanmugam, is that it would now allow the Government to get any information, and that this power is new.

“Section 20 of the CPC has been used all these years, and it is in broad terms, to get any information for investigations,” he said.

The minister described two types of powers. First, the power to detain or investigate are referred to as “substantive powers”. “Executory powers” refer to powers to enforce, such as requiring the taking down of certain material.

Several executory powers are available under existing laws, he said.

For instance, the Broadcasting Act allows the Government to deal with objectionable content online, such as by issuing directions to broadcasting licensees for content to be taken down or blocked.

The Public Order Act allows the Government to regulate physical assemblies and processions. The Commissioner of Police may deny permits for such events that are “directed towards a political end” and involve foreign entities or people.

“So the issues of ‘protest potential’ are regulated in the physical world. Logically, similar rules should apply in the online space,” said Mr Shanmugam.

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What does Fica add to the current powers, he asked.

In the case of the person suspected of acting for a foreign agent against Singapore’s interests, Fica, if passed, can be used, he said.

This is if it can be shown that online communications activity has been prepared or planned by or on behalf of a foreign principal, and that it is in the public interest for the authorities to give one or more directions.

Examples of directions that can be issued include for a communicator or Internet intermediary to take down content, or for an Internet intermediary to suspend or terminate accounts, he said.

Suspects can also be arrested and prosecuted if an offence of clandestine foreign interference is made out, but under Fica, there would be no detention without trial, he said.

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As to how Fica goes further than current laws in addressing the threat of HICs, Mr Shanmugam said this is mainly in “extraterritorial application”. “Because (Fica) explicitly includes global platforms, which are often vectors for HICs. So that updates the analogue powers for the Internet age.”

For example, said Mr Shanmugam, in the “analogue world”, the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act and the Broadcasting Act provide powers to proscribe foreign newspapers and broadcasting services.

The digital equivalent under Fica, he said, is the ability to issue directions to proscribe “online locations” – to demonetise the platform – and the removal of apps.

While the Broadcasting Act also provides the power to order a TV station to carry a message, Fica allows for a “must-carry” direction to be issued to communicators or social media services, he added.

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