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Antifake «revolution»: realities and perspectives

As shown by the retrospective analysis of the events progression dynamics, in most countries, fake news is systematically transformed from a routine element of the media space into a threat to national security. This unfavourable reality is publicly recognised not only by small and medium-sized countries, but also by world giants setting the tone and "rules of the game" in global politics and economics.

In early October 2019, Singapore passed the controversial (from the point of view of human rights defenders) Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, which gave the authorities extensive powers. Now law enforcement agencies have the right to demand that social networks and information resources make edits or delete content, block sites that distribute unreliable socially significant information, correct publications or post or placing a warning about its inaccuracy or untruthfulness next to them. The law criminalizes the deliberate distribution of fake information with a maximum penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to SGD 1 million (USD 735,000). At the same time, the wording of “fake news” is not clearly spelled out, leaving many loopholes in favour of the authorities.

According to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the city-state has become "the target of hostile information campaigns" in recent years, so the law will be an effective tool to combat disinformation.

Thus, Singapore, which already quite rigidly censors its media, contributed to the general trend in Southeast Asia to tighten state regulation in the field of information security, in which human rights organizations and activists saw a threat to freedom of speech. According to the press freedom ranking by Reporters Without Borders, the country is ranked 151st out of 180.

As a result, Facebook, Google and Twitter, which are headquartered in Singapore, have been "hit hard" among the usual media. The law applies not only to online forums, but also to personal messages sent via encrypted messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and Telegram.

At the end of November, there were the first examples of legal practice: Singaporean politician Brad Bowyer, a Briton by birth, who had received the Singaporean citizenship and over the years occupied various positions in the ruling and several opposition parties, was forced to correct his post on Facebook. Similar claims were brought against blogger Alex Tan, an Australian citizen not residing in Singapore permanently, who refused to comply with this requirement.

By the way, Singapore, which has been governed by the People's Action Party since the independence in 1965, is on the eve of general elections, for which an official date has not yet been set.

In March 2019, a law providing for blocking of unreliable and facts-distorting (fake) news, as well as materials that offend society, state symbols and government institutions, was also adopted in the Russian Federation. The document prohibits information networks from disseminating unreliable information that is of public importance, poses a threat of causing harm to the life and/or health of citizens, property, a threat of mass violation of public order and safety or a threat of interfering with the functioning or breakdown in the operation of critical infrastructure, transport or social infrastructure, credit institutions, energy, industry or communication facilities.

In case of violation of the norms established by law, the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation, as well as his deputies, can contact the Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies and Mass Communications (Roskomnadzor) with a request to restrict access to these information resources. In turn, Roskomnadzor must notify the offender of the need to remove false information.

Russian "anti-fake" law also caused a wave of disapproval in the Western media and human rights organisations.

At the same time, similar laws have been long in force in a number of Anglo-Saxon and other European countries. The explanation is quite simple: on the Internet, having the audience of 4.4 billion people, according to the British analytical agency We Are Social, less than 60% of published news are written by real people. The remaining volume is generated by bots as well as automatic news aggregators, including those for fake news. At the same time, the amount of misinformation disseminated via the Internet is growing so rapidly that fake news is beginning to displace the real news.

It is logical and natural that, realizing this threat, the world's leading countries have begun to build fake protection systems in order to create professional "inhibitors" against the fakes that corrode public and state institutions.

The UK seems to be the furthest advanced on this issue. For example, British Government has announced plans to establish a separate communications security body to combat misinformation from states and individuals. Earlier, British government announced its intention to introduce digital identification of all election ads in the media.

The report by the British Parliament Committee, released in February 2019, identifies fakes as a "serious threat to democracy", calling for stricter regulation of social networks. The main recommendation is to amend the electoral laws, which would take into account the emergence of a new factor in the media sphere and its impact on social and political processes.

British ministers insist on direct responsibility of social networks for published content. In fact, this is an intention to legalize social networks in the role of publishers, force them to remove illegal content and set priorities for user protection that go beyond their commercial interests.

At the same time, the main "malicious and unrelenting stream of disinformation", according to British lawmakers, is being spread by none other than Facebook.

The Committee also asked the Government to reform some of the laws relating to political advertising and requested further investigation into the influence of foreigners in political campaigns.

Parliamentarians have demanded that social networks remove "harmful" or "illegal" content on their platforms and be held accountable in accordance with a mandatory code of ethics, which must be monitored by an independent regulator (the latter is hotly contested in the US). According to the MPs, such regulator should be able to take legal action if companies such as Facebook refuse to remove illegal content. Legislators believe that such regulator should be given broad powers that would enable it to obtain any information from social networks that may be relevant to any request.

In Germany, since January 1, 2018, a law has been in force that obliges social networks with more than 2 million registered users to monitor their content (as of today the German government has identified 7 such networks: Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Google, Pinterest and Soundcloud). If the social network does not respond to a complaint and such a case is not an isolated incident, the company-owner faces a fine of up to EUR 50 million.

France is also trying to fight fakes at the legislative level: in the spring of this year, the law "On the manipulation of information", initiated personally by President E. Macron and adopted in November 2018, came into force.

In December 2018, Australia passed the "toughest among Western countries" bill obliging Internet companies to provide security services with access to encrypted messages. In Vietnam, a cybersecurity law was passed in January 2019, imposing strict controls on engineers, including creating their offices in the country, local data storage and complying with requirements to delete unwanted content. Vietnamese authorities have already recruited about 10,000 people to track social media posts.

In Egypt, bloggers with more than 5,000 subscribers are considered mass media entities and are solely responsible for spreading fakes or inciting to break laws.

In China, private media have the right to post socio-political news only after it appears in the state media.

In Cambodia, in May 2018, in the run-up to the national elections, a decree was signed allowing an investigation to be conducted on media sites that disseminate fake news.

The Thai government plans to open a dedicated centre to combat fake news on social media. Previously, a number of acts had already been adopted in this country, including laws on cybersecurity and computer crime.

The Indian case has already been detailed and described in the author's previous comment.

To be fair, it should be noted that social networks themselves are striving for "self-cleaning": for example, Facebook has recently automatically deleted more than 3 billion fake accounts.

Although the "anti-fake" wave of normsetting around the world was launched by the disinformation in the context of the 2016 presidential elections in the United States, which most clearly showed the vulnerability of the state machine to the threat of fakes, the reaction of American human rights defenders to these legislative initiatives is very strange and looks like double standard.

For example, Human Rights Watch warns that anti-fake law could undermine Internet freedom not only in Singapore, but also in other parts of Southeast Asia, thereby opening the door to “digital authoritarianism” and legalizing the suppression of dissent.

"In its 2018 Freedom on the Net report, Freedom House listed every country in Southeast Asia as "not free" or "partially free".

Emphasizing that the fake news is "hyped up to become a 21st century ghost that people should fear", advocates hope that Southeast Asian countries "will come to their senses before it's too late and follow the Malaysian model that acknowledges that existing laws are more than sufficient to combat the so-called "fake news" phenomenon. Unlike other countries in the region, Malaysia has rescinded its much-criticized "News Fake Act" adopted in 2018 by former Prime Minister Najib Razak.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, David Kaye (US citizen), also criticized the Asian anti-fake initiatives and expressed concern in his address to the Singapore government that the law "will serve as a basis for curbing perfectly legitimate speech, especially public debate, criticism of government policy".

Time and law enforcement practice will show to what extent the national anti-fake legislation in this or that country is adequate to the real situation. However, despite the reactions of human rights defenders, the journalistic community and other zealots of "digital authoritarianism", it is clear to a sensible part of the audience that the trend towards increased "executive discipline" and responsible behaviour on the Internet is justified and irreversible, as it is based on the real threat and will only increase in the future as the global problem of counteracting fakes and other challenges in cyberspace grows.