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Government of Singapore Demonstrates Real Online Censorship

Singapore’s recent policing of online content provides an instructive example of the difference between private curating of material by platform owners and dangerous curtailing of free speech by governments. 

Singapore’s “Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulations Act” (the name alone surely has George Orwell spinning in his grave) became law in October. It was first invoked last week by requiring an opposition politician to add the disclaimer, “This post contains false statements of fact,” to his post about investments by government-linked firms. An ominous start, to be sure.

That invoking of the new law was followed quickly on Friday by Facebook being forced to add a “correction notice” to a post written by Alex Tan, a Singapore-born political activist now living in Australia. Mr. Tan’s post alleges a wrongful arrest by Singapore authorities. When he refused to comply with the labeling law, citing his remote location, the government instead ordered Facebook to label the post.

Facebook routinely pulls posts based on the company’s own standards of prohibiting nudity and hate speech.  Those actions are not Facebook engaging in censorship—that’s merely the company enforcing their terms-of-service on their own privately-owned platform.  

In contrast, the government of Singapore is violating a natural right by compelling speech—at first unsuccessfully from Mr. Tan and then, more successfully, from Facebook. Singapore’s government has broad powers to curtail the rights of their citizens, but in the United States we’re protected from that type of government infringements by our Bill of Rights.

But that hasn’t stopped some in Congress from proposing what would effectively result in the same crowning of government as the arbiter of truth here stateside. If those plans went into effect, that would be censorship.  Letting politicians, those they appoint, or career bureaucrats decide what is and isn’t true, compelling the flagging or removing of said material, and threatening platforms with fines or revoking legal protections is indeed government censorship.

Regardless of party affiliation, these efforts should be opposed by anyone who values the First Amendment. The idea of the United States following Singapore’s model on any free speech issue should also raise reds flags. The country earned the lackluster rank of “partly free” in 2019 Freedom in the World report by Freedom House.

Singapore’s content regulations have immediately revealed themselves as nothing more than protections for those in power. Those same policy ideas here, however well intentioned, with lead to the same dismal result.