Experts welcome laws to give faster relief to victims of falsehoods
But relief may not be long-lasting, court orders can be contested.
Fake news has made some companies lose business, jeopardised relationships and even put some in harm's way.
These victims of falsehood could soon get faster relief, with the proposed expansion of the courts' powers to order publishers, Internet platforms and third parties to rectify untruths by taking them down, issuing corrections or disabling access to the false statements.
In serious cases where a reputation has been harmed, the courts may even order uninvolved third parties - like a media outlet - to publish a correction and draw people's attention to it.
These changes, spelt out in the Protection from Harassment (Amendment) Bill earlier this month, were welcomed by lawyers and experts.
They said it could hasten relief for individuals and entities who would suffer more when falsehoods about them are allowed to spread.
But the experts warned that challenges remain as relief may not be long-lasting, and third parties may still contest court orders.
Lawyer Ramesh Bharani Nagaratnam of RBN Chambers said he expects the application procedures for such court orders to be simplified, with the setting up of a new court to hear all harassment-related matters.
In addition to the newly introduced interim orders, this would mean that victims of falsehoods could see faster relief in taking down the untruths, or in the publication of corrections, he added.
"Under the Protection from Harassment Act (Poha), we just have to show that the statement is false, unlike under defamation law where we have to prove that the false statement is also defaming," said Mr Ramesh.
Another plus point is that the court orders can still be served to publishers according to their username, account or website, he added.
This is unlike in defamation cases, where the other party must be identified before a legal proceeding can commence, said Mr Ramesh.
However, lawyer Nicolas Tang of Farallon Law Corporation said court orders on unidentified people could be insufficient to stop the spread of falsehoods.
Even if the court order is served on a particular Facebook account, for example, the same publisher could open another account to republish the false statements and the court order would not be binding, he said.
"This way, the game continues, and the end result is not effective and lasting," said Mr Tang.
He has found that it is more effective to sue the perpetrator for defamation, as they are made to pay damages for their misdeeds.
"At the back of fake news, there's a motive... if you deal with the post alone it's not going to solve the root cause," said Mr Tang.
Another downside is that international platforms, such as Facebook, might contest the court orders as they would want to "defend the freedom of speech".
An ordinary lay person is unlikely to have pockets deep enough to take on a big international company, he added.
"Poha is a good attempt, but it doesn't really deal with the root cause," said Mr Tang.
Singapore Management University's Associate Professor of Law Eugene Tan said corrections and takedown notices are only the second-best option.
While he agreed that enhanced powers are needed, given the virality and virility of falsehoods, he said there must also be legislative and enforcement signals that "such actions have no place in a decent society".
"Corrections or even takedown efforts do not completely remedy the damage. Even if they could, the damage has been done," said Prof Tan.
"But the answer is not to do nothing. A person's reputation, dignity and well-being are often at stake," he added.
Law Society president Gregory Vijayendran said time will tell how practical the new laws are.
Describing the revisions as game-changing, he said the disabling orders - where Internet intermediaries are required to disable access to the false statements - are particularly novel as they require positive action to be taken.
"The remedies you can get under Poha are very wide-ranging," said Mr Vijayendran.
He added: "Given the fact that falsehoods are typically online and can go viral, it's optimal for the law to have these carefully calibrated and tailor-made remedies."
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