On 3 October 2022, the Singapore Government tabled a bill seeking to introduce requirements for online service providers, and in particular social media services, to better protect the online safety of Singapore’s internet users. This is yet another step in the global strengthening of online content regulation laws that we discussed in August.

The Bill

The Online Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill will regulate online communication services (OCS) which have Singapore based end-users. The overall purpose of the Bill is to ensure such OCS providers:

  • Provide a safe online environment for Singaporeans that promotes responsible online behaviour, deters objectionable online activity and prevents access to harmful content.

  • Place adequate priority on the protection of Singaporean children from exposure to content which may be harmful to them.

  • Are regulated in a manner that addresses public interest considerations.

What is an OCS?

An OCS is any electronic service that allows users to access or communicate content via the internet or deliver content to end-users. Examples include social media and video sharing platforms, online gaming platforms with in-game chat functionality, dating websites and apps, and online blogs and internet forums.

Importantly, an OCS is defined to include both services provided in or from Singapore and those that are accessible by Singapore end-users but provided outside of the island territory. This extra-territorial effect is similar to that set out in the UK and EU laws on online harms – the UK Online Safety Bill and EU Digital Services Act – and reflects a global cognisance of regulators which are increasingly being forced to think beyond their borders to police the digital ecosystem, and is a precursor of what is to come as the metaverse expands.

Regulated OCS and Codes of Practice

Under the Bill, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) has the power to designate OCSs with significant reach or impact in Singapore as Regulated Online Communication Services (ROCS). ROCS must comply with supplementary Codes of Practice (COPs). The IMDA is proposing a draft Code of Practice for Online Safety (Draft Code) under which ROCs are expected to:

  • Put in place system-wide measures to minimise Singapore users’ exposure to harmful content (which includes sexual, violent, suicide and self-harm content and cyberbullying) and empower users with tools to manage their own safety. In particular, ROCs must take additional steps to minimise children’s exposure to inappropriate content and provide tools that allow children or their parents to manage their safety on these services.

  • Provide an easy-to-use mechanism for Singapore users to report harmful content and unwanted interactions to the ROCS. ROCS are expected to take action on these user reports in a timely manner.

  • Be transparent about how well they are protecting Singapore users from harmful content, by submitting annual reports to the IMDA on users’ experience of their services, including the steps the ROCS have taken to mitigate exposure to harmful and inappropriate content and actions that ROCS have taken on user reports. The annual reports will be published on the IMDA’s website, adding to the raft of ESG-related disclosure requirements being pushed by one of Asia’s leading nations for sustainability.

Dealing with egregious content

The Bill also introduces a concept of egregious content which includes content that advocates suicide and self-harm, physical or sexual violence, terrorism, as well as any content depicting child sexual exploitation or content likely to cause racial and religious disharmony in Singapore. For such egregious content, the IMDA may issue directions to OCS providers, requiring such OCS provider to:

  • disable access by Singapore users to the egregious content; and

  • ensure that a specific account which is communicating the egregious content will not be able to communicate to Singapore users.

Comparison with UK Online Safety Bill and EU Digital Services Act

The Bill is similar to the UK Online Safety Bill and EU Digital Services Act in terms of its emphasis on systems and processes for dealing with regulated content. However, the current draft of the UK Online Safety Bill is much more complex in nature with nuances in relation to which categories of regulated entities are in-scope, as well as a complex framework of risk assessments and duties of care. 

The Bill presently only distinguishes between two categories of regulated entities (OCS and ROCS) unlike the multiple tiers under the UK regime, and the duties under the Bill are also framed in fairly broad terms (namely a duty to take “reasonably practicable” steps), compared to the more prescriptive duties of care under the UK and EU regimes. The Bill is, however, a welcome legislative introduction to a landscape which was previously regulated in a much more piecemeal and less coherent fashion.

Next steps

The next reading of Bill is in November 2022 so it is likely to be further developed. At the same time, due to the recent changes in the UK Government, we expect further updates to the UK Online Safety Bill. That said, we expect the UK and Singapore regimes to retain their key focus on systems and processes, as is consistent with the EU proposals. 

Therefore, organisations which are affected by the Singapore online safety regime should be thinking about how best to prepare for compliance – both with these pioneering laws and the other online content regimes that exist and are set to follow around the world.