Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) has launched a public consultation on two proposed codes of practice, a code of practice for online safety and a content code for social media services, which will impose requirements on social media services to ensure the online safety of users in Singapore. The consultation will close on 10 August 2022.

When issued, the codes will be legally binding, similar to other codes issued by the MCI and administered by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) pursuant to the Info-communications Media Development Authority Act 2016.

Authors: Bryan Tan, Charmian Aw, Bernice Tian and Goh Eng Han

Capability: Entertainment & Media; Media; Regulatory & Investigations; Social Media; Tech & Data and Technology

Background

This development is timely, with a significant amount of discourse happening on social media platforms today in addition to conventional channels. Taiwan and India are also taking steps to formulate similar regulation to govern online and social media harms. However, unlike previous IMDA codes of practice for cybersecurity, competition and fibre network interconnectivity, these proposed codes impact end users more directly. While the public consultation has not explicitly defined ‘social media services’, or at least, not yet, one would expect that the codes will apply to the major social media platforms which are accessible by users in Singapore today.

The proposed codes continue the trend of new legislation setting industry-wide standards, such as the Personal Data Protection Act 2012 (PDPA) and the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019 (POFMA). While PDPA covers leaks of user data and POFMA covers false statements of fact, there are other scenarios that ave the potential to cause significant online harm. These include insensitive and provocative racist comments and the sharing of dangerous viral video challenges. Aside from closing the gaps in such areas not addressed by existing legislation, the proposed codes will also ensure that local support resources are available that will be better suited to Singapore users.

Code of practice for online safety

The first proposed measure is a code of practice for online safety. The code of practice will introduce community

standards for the following categories of content:

1. Sexual

2. Violent

3. Self-harm

4. Cyberbullying

5. Endangering public health

6. Facilitating vice and organised crime

When users search for high-risk content like self-harm, the code of practice will require social media services to

provide relevant safety information to these users.

Three focus areas the MCI has identified for the community standards are:

1. Child safety

2. User reporting

3. Platform accountability

Child safety is particularly important as a notable proportion of users are younger with social media services becoming more ubiquitous. In addition to adhering to community standards for online content, the proposed code of practice requires social media services to provide tools to limit exposure to specified unwanted content. The MCI suggests tools including the hiding of unwanted comments and limiting contact and interactions with other users.

Child safety is achieved by introducing further safeguards specific to young users, including a stricter set of community standards and more tools to limit exposure. The MCI suggests enhanced tools, including limiting the

visibility of accounts, limiting contact and/or interactions and managing the content young users see and/or experience. The safeguards can either be activated automatically or provided on an opt-in basis. It remains to be seen whether social media services will be required to scan encrypted content for infringing content automatically, as proposed by draft legislation in some European jurisdictions.

User reporting is becoming an increasingly important moderation tool with the fast pace and high volume of social

media content created today. While social media services’ moderation teams and algorithms are a first line of defence against harmful online content, users might still come across harmful content that slips through the cracks. Creating a system for users to report harmful content and for social media services to take action will reduce the amount of harmful content that evades initial detection and is shown to users.

With great power comes great responsibility. While social media services deploy more moderation tools, their practices should also be disclosed to users. Although not every user takes the time to read annual reports released by social media services (separate from the code’s proposed requirements), collating reports from various services using a standard format on an IMDA page, for instance, increases accountability. This will then enable users to contribute constructive feedback and allow the MCI to gain a more accurate understanding of various moderation practices adopted by social media services over time.

Content code for social media services

The second proposed measure is a content code for social media services. This will empower the IMDA to direct

social media services to disable access to specified harmful content or disallow specified online accounts. As its

powers here are more drastic, the IMDA will only intervene directly in social media services’ operations in cases

involving extremely harmful content including:

1. Suicide and self-harm

2. Sexual harm

3. Public health

4. Public security

5. Racial or religious disharmony or intolerance

Where the IMDA determines that content is extremely harmful, social media services will need to disable access to that content for Singapore users and/or disallow the online accounts involved from communicating content to Singapore users. The content code takes precedence, even if the offending content does not infringe the social media services’ own policies. An example would be online content that specifically denigrates a religious or racial

group in Singapore, which might not be flagged by social media services. Such situations tend to be more complex and correspondingly need to be identified by the IMDA, as opposed to user reporting.

Next steps

The two proposed codes have a relatively broad ambit and are important regulatory initiatives towards helping users feel as safe online as in the real world. Social media services will need to expand their compliance capabilities as the trend towards increasing regulation continues globally, including now with Singapore. Social media services should also continue to communicate with their users (for instance, in publicity campaigns or collaborations) in respect of any additions and changes to their tools and community standards so that such users can keep pace with developments.

Finally, social media services are welcome to evaluate the feasibility of implementing the two codes and submit feedback to the MCI on their implementation. While some accountability requirements are not drastically different

from existing reports social media services publish, more work may be needed to integrate the code of practice into existing community standards for content. The MCI is inviting feedback on:

1. Categories of harmful online content

2. Existing safety measures and tools

3. Feedback on proposed safety measures and tools

4. Additional safeguards for young users

5. Effective and transparent user reporting mechanisms

6. Roles of the community, private sector and government

Our recognised technology lawyers are experienced and highly familiar with the sector’s latest developments. If you wish to discuss any aspects of the proposed codes, please reach out to our team below or to your usual Reed Smith contact.

Reed Smith LLP is licensed to operate as a foreign law practice in Singapore under the name and style, Reed Smith Pte Ltd (hereafter collectively, “Reed Smith”). Where advice on Singapore law is required, we will refer the matter to and work with Reed Smith’s Formal Law Alliance partner in Singapore, Resource Law LLC, where necessary.

Client Alert 22-189 (July 2022)

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