[TODAY] Beware of collateral damage of Fica

Published SEPTEMBER 29, 2021

Earlier this month, the Government tabled a Bill to enact the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (Fica).

The legislation, if passed, will provide the Government with the powers to act against foreign interference that comes in the forms of hostile information campaigns and local proxies by foreign entities.

The Bill is underscored by the recognition that foreign interference takes place in both online and offline settings.

The swathe of provisions proposed will provide the Government, specifically the Minister for Home Affairs, with different mechanisms to prevent, detect and disrupt actions by foreign actors who interfere with domestic politics through influence operations.

The directives will be issued to social media companies, electronic services such as instant messaging apps and Internet access providers, and individuals who own or manage websites and blogs.

Given the rise of influence operations — also known as cyber-enabled foreign interference — globally, this Bill does not come as a surprise.

However, while Fica upgrades the Government’s arsenal to counter foreign interference in a digitalised age, it should not do so at the expense of people’s trust in the Government and diminish Singapore’s position as a global hub.

FIGHTING AN EVOLVING THREAT

Tabled two years after the passing of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma), some might wonder what took Singapore so long to legislate against influence operations, given the prevalence of the problem in other countries.

In the past few years, countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States have introduced or passed bills to curtail foreign interference in elections and infrastructures.

The rapidly evolving nature of influence operations — in terms of the who, how and why — renders existing laws such as Pofma and the Political Donations Act toothless in countering hostile foreign actors.

There is a tendency for people to think of foreign powers as the main perpetrators of foreign influence.

The trend is evident from actions that have been taken by social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google (YouTube) to eradicate inauthentic behaviour originating from Russia, Iran, China and Turkey in the past few years.

However, hostile actors are not limited to foreign governments.

Facebook recently shared that most of the covert influence operations in Asia-Pacific are domestic. Research conducted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute uncovered “apolitical disinformation entrepreneurs” as masterminds.

The toolbox used by perpetrators of influence operations has also expanded.

While the “basic” and more crude forms of tactics, such as bots and fake accounts, are still being used, more covert techniques such as buzz accounts and pop culture fan communities are emerging.

Furthermore, hostile actors are often very adept at mixing and matching tactics, combining them to achieve devastating consequences.

PROTECTING PUBLIC TRUST AND GLOBAL HUB STATUS

To detect, disrupt and stop hostile information campaigns, the Bill includes a wide range of directives.

These include directing social media platforms to disclose information even before the content is published, requiring a person or an Internet intermediary to stop communicating hostile information campaign contents, and requiring services and platforms to restrict the dissemination of such additional content.

Internet service providers can also be ordered to block access to content.

Since the first reading of the Fica Bill, concerns have been raised by different quarters pertaining to the overly broad and expansive definitions of foreign interference and what constitutes political activities.

A petition against Fica which calls for more public consultation via a multi-party parliamentary Select Committee has also been launched.

A provision that merits special discussion is the Technical Assistance Direction that will allow the Government to act on an anticipatory basis.

Research on rumours and conspiracy theories found that the inoculation strategy — exposing individuals to fallacies to prepare them — has been shown to heighten people’s vigilance and scepticism towards false information.

While this directive will help the Government prevent the slow drip effect of influence operations and make a pre-emptive strike as soon as it is aware of suspicious activities, there could be concerns about its opacity and potential overreach.

According to the Bill, a “Technical Assistance Direction can be issued if the Minister suspects that there are preparations or plans to undertake an online communication activity in Singapore by or on behalf of a foreign principal, and the Minister is of the opinion that it is in the public interest to issue the direction”.

The ongoing tussle between the Indian government and WhatsApp over a new law that requires the platform to identify the “first originator of information” when the authorities demand it highlights the potential pushback.

While the Indian government emphasises that the law will only be used to unmask people credibly accused of wrongdoing, WhatsApp has said that the law would require it to break encryption for message receivers as well as message originators.

This will potentially breach privacy protections on the platform.

Fica should specify the situations and the purposes that warrant the issuance of such a direction, or other directions for the matter.

This will help put the public’s mind at ease and promote cooperation from tech platforms.

At the international level, the Government needs to consider the potential effects Fica might have on Singapore as an international hub as well as criticisms about the lack of clarity on what “collaboration” entails.

Part of the wonder of cyberspace is its transboundary nature which makes collaborations on an unprecedented scale possible.

It has spurred the growth of the digital economy, sparked entrepreneurship, advanced academic collaboration and scholarship, and strengthened political alliances.

For example, the free-flowing exchange of ideas and resources form the backbone of the global climate movement.

The movement sparked off the people’s climate march, industry-wide climate activism efforts in different countries as well as grassroots campaigns.

While one cannot establish causation, the sharp gain in the momentum of transnational collaboration could have contributed to the energised global action on climate change.

Therefore, the definition of foreign interference and its measurements would have to be sharp and clear so as not to diminish Singapore’s position as a node in the global network of collaboration and creation.

Since the first reading of the Fica Bill, legal practitioners, activists and academics have raised concerns and offered suggestions on how to refine the Bill.

The Government should take heed and consider how it can strengthen the proposed Act so that it can keep foreign interference at bay while safeguarding people’s trust in it and Singapore’s hub status.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr Carol Soon is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies where she heads the Society and Culture department.

Read more at https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/beware-collateral-damage-fica

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