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Facebook users in Singapore spotted a correction on the social network over the weekend as the company for the first time complied with a controversial local law aimed at curbing misinformation.
“Facebook is legally required to tell you that the Singapore government says this post has false information,” said a disclaimer accompanying the post that the Singapore government ordered the social network to post, according to the Wall Street Journal.
It’s the first time an American tech company is known to have complied with the country's Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation law, which took effect in October. Singapore's law is one of the most aggressive statutes drafted to date as governments around the world step up their regulation of tech giants. It allows government ministers to order tech companies to issue correction notices or remove material that officials say is false. But critics are concerned the law could open the door to broad government censorship.
“Singapore's law is designed specifically to put Internet companies like Facebook in a headlock to comply with these rights abusing edicts,” Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director, told me. "With huge, onerous fines and the possibility of even prison time, it's going to be hard for any company to not comply”
The Singapore government ordered Facebook on Friday to run the disclaimer on a post from the fringe news site States Times Review, which contained accusations about the arrest of an alleged whistleblower that the Singapore government denies ever happened. The ministers initially ordered Facebook user Alex Tan, who runs the State Times Review, to run a correction on the post. But Tan, who does not live in Singapore and says he is an Australian citizen, refused to do so, according to a Reuters report. The Singapore government is now investigating Tan. So Facebook posted a disclaimer instead.
The Facebook correction is just the latest flashpoint in an ongoing debate about the law. Government officials say it's a key line of defense against misinformation and interference in elections, but critics worry this could just be the beginning of a flood of government requests that could have a chilling effect on online free expression. They expect it's only a matter of time before other companies receive similar orders.
"Singapore is thorough when it comes to abusing the right of free expression, so I expect we'll see notices required by other U.S. tech firms like Twitter and Google if the [States] Times Review follows through and posts its content on other platforms,” Robertson said. "It was ill-advised for these U.S. tech companies to establish such a massive, on the ground presence in Singapore, and the government is going to use that against them."
Facebook cautioned the Singapore government to take a measured approach as the government begins enforcing the new law.
“As it is early days of the law coming into effect, we hope the Singapore Government’s assurances that it will not impact free expression will lead to a measured and transparent approach to implementation,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement.
Facebook is confronting the order as its chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has made a major push for free speech in Washington with the company confronting widespread criticism for not doing enough to limit the spread of falsehoods and hate on its service. Robertson noted Facebook took steps to signal it doesn't support Singapore's law when it issued its disclaimer.
"By phrasing the correction the way it did, putting it only on the post that is the subject of Singapore's action and ensuring the correction notice is only seen by those in Singapore, Facebook is doing the legal minimum and signaling it is not supportive of Singapore's requirement but it has no other choice," Robertson said.
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: Medical centers are promoting unproven treatments via online search engine advertising and crowdfunding platforms despite recent crackdowns, my colleagues William Wan and Laurie McGinley report. The Florida-based Lung Health Institute has spent millions of dollars on targeted online ads to lure patients suffering from lung disease to pay for stem cell therapies largely dismissed by the medical community, my colleagues found.
Former employees say the company targeted the elderly by advertising on Google, Bing, and even blackjack and solitaire sites. They would also target based on locations, such as cities with direct flights to their clinics.
Google barred the Lung Health Institute from buying ads in 2017, but the company managed to bypass some restrictions by rebranding its name and website. The Lung Health Institute removed mentions of “stem cells” from its website after Google banned ads promoting “unproven or experimental medical techniques such as most stem cell therapy” this September.
“If we find ads that violate our policies, we take immediate action, which can include taking down violating ads or suspending an account altogether,” Google said in a statement.
The Lung Health Institute also encouraged patients to fundraise for the expensive treatments on sites such as GoFundMe, which prohibits fundraising for therapies considered illegal by a regulatory body, but treatments offered by the Lung Health Institute still occupy a legal gray area. GoFundMe told The Post it launched an audit of its fundraisers, but months later, the site continues to host thousands of campaigns raising money for stem cell treatments, including more than 100 that mention the Lung Health Institute by name.
YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki explains her position in the debate over Section 230 to 60 Minutes's Lesley Stahl:
NIBBLES: YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki defended the company’s track record om removing harmful content, telling 60 Minutes’s Lesley Stahl that the company is “making the decision to be responsible” despite lack of government legislation regulating hate speech.
“Honestly if there were laws that said this is the kind of content you can't have, then we would remove it,” Wojcicki said. “Just to be clear because you've asked me so many questions about hate, that's not necessarily something we're getting any legislation about. [Hate] is allowed here in the U.S.”
Wojcicki cited Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law the holds platforms immune from liability for content posted by users, as a key legal tool that allows the platform to remove harmful content without repercussion. She says YouTube would follow laws regarding removing hate speech — if they existed.
“The government is free to say, ‘Hey this is how you enforce hate, this is how you enforce harassment,’ and we would follow those laws, but we don't see those laws. Those laws aren't out there right now.”
When asked if YouTube should be held responsible for content it recommends to users thousands of times, Wojcicki countered that "our systems wouldn't work without recommending."
“If we were held liable for every single piece of content that we recommended, we would have to review it. That would mean there'd be a much smaller set of information that people would be finding,” Wojcicki said. “Much, much smaller.”
BYTES: European Union antitrust regulators are probing how and why Google collects data, Foo Yun Chee at Reuters reports. The preliminary investigation underscores that the search giant hasn't escaped regulatory scrutiny in the bloc, even after being hit with billions in fines in recent years.
“The Commission has sent out questionnaires as part of a preliminary investigation into Google’s practices relating to Google’s collection and use of data. The preliminary investigation is ongoing,” the E.U. regulator confirmed to Reuters in an email.
The E.U. is homing in on data collection from search, online advertising, online ad targeting, log-in services and Web browsers, according to a document reviewed by Reuters. The E.U. had previously issued several multibillion dollar fines against Google for its businesses including search and advertising.
Europe's heightened scrutiny coincides with efforts from the U.S. Justice Department to investigate data collection practices across the tech industry. A group of 51 attorneys general in the U.S. have also launched a wide antitrust investigation into Google in the United States.
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— Coming up:
- The Open Technology Institute will host a panel on transparency reporting practices by technology companies on Wednesday at 12 p.m.
- The Senate Commerce Committee will host a hearing titled “Examining Legislative Proposals to Protect Consumer Data Privacy,” on Wednesday at 10 a.m.
- The House Energy and Commerce Committee will host an Federal Communications Commission oversight hearing on Thursday at 10 a.m.
- The Senate Commerce subcommittee on communications, technology, innovation and the Internet will convene a hearing titled “The Evolution of Next-Generation Technologies: Implementing MOBILE NOW” on Thursday at 10 a.m.