By Rob Ames, Farsi Cybercrime Researcher, Flashpoint
In response to fake news becoming an increasingly pervasive issue affecting the global political climate, many countries have implemented, or are in the process of implementing, legislation to combat the online spread of false information.
While it’s difficult to reach uniform conclusions about these different legislative acts, organisations with an online presence in countries with anti-fake news laws may be subjected to increased government scrutiny, as well as potential fines or sanctions.
The following countries have passed legislation to combat the spread of fake news:
As the first country to pass legislation criminalising the spread of fake news, Qatar’s 2014 cybercrime law provoked a great deal of controversy due to its broad language, which leaves ample room for interpretation. Under this law, it is illegal to spread false news that jeopardises the safety of the state, its general order, and its local or international peace. Offenders found guilty of circulating false information may face prison sentences and/or hefty fines. The law also places harsh sanctions on those found guilty of libel or slander.
The lack of clear criteria for fake news under Qatari law, as well as the prohibition of news that violates “any social values or principles,” presents considerable risks for individuals and businesses in Qatar. For example, in November 2015 a woman was found guilty of violating Qatari cybercrime law because she used insulting language in private messages to her landlord. In the absence of a clear standard for what constitutes such language, this law could similarly be used against firms doing business in Qatar if any of their employees happen to use insulting language over digital channels.
These laws have also been used against media organisations. In 2016, an assistant editor of a Doha newspaper was reportedly questioned by police and spent a night in jail after an individual convicted of child molestation demanded that the newspaper redact a story describing the crimes he had been accused of, on the grounds that such a story damaged his reputation. Although the assistant editor’s case was eventually dismissed, the arrest still illustrates the law’s ability to impact the operations of media outlets.
On April 2, the lower house of Malaysia’s parliament passed the controversial Anti-Fake News Act, a bill calling for fines of up to RM500,000 ($123,100 USD) or up to six years in prison for individuals found guilty of spreading “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false.” The first person prosecuted under the law was a Danish citizen, who was fined RM10,000 ($2,460 USD) after accusing Malaysian police of responding slowly to the April 21 shooting of a Palestinian lecturer.
Since the legislation was passed shortly before Malaysia’s May elections following a corruption scandal involving then-incumbent prime minister Najib Razak, many a commentator framed the law as an attempt to shield Najib from negative publicity. Najib ultimately lost the election, and the Anti-Fake News Act was repealed on Aug. 16.
The passing and subsequent repeal of Malaysia’s short-lived Anti-Fake News Act demonstrates the potential for political volatility to affect the regulatory business climate. According to Reuters, the law applied to digital publications and social media, including offenders outside of Malaysia, if Malaysia or a Malaysian citizen were affected. As such, if it had achieved longevity, the law could have had serious implications for any international news outlet or social media platform with users in Malaysia.
On May 16, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta signed the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act, intended to combat illegal online activity, including the spread of fake news. The law was criticised for the broad, ambiguous language used to define fake news, which leaves enough room for interpretation for the Kenyan government to prosecute dissenting journalism or online speech. Although Kenyatta has already signed the bill into law, it remains to be seen how the law will be implemented and whether it will stand up to legal challenges.
After heated debates, the French parliament passed a bill to combat fake news during the three months leading up to elections on July 3. The law requires social media platforms to allow users to flag stories they believe are false, notify authorities, and publicly disclose actions taken to address fake news. In addition, political candidates would be able to call upon a judge to rule on whether to take down a news story within 48 hours.
The law has been widely criticised for threatening free speech, causing confusion, and it’s unrealistic, 48-hour lead time for judges to verify contested news stories. Moreover, since the law concerns the spread of fake news rather than its production, it will affect a variety of social media websites and other digital platforms with users in France.
On July 16, Egyptian parliament passed legislation that classifies social media users with more than 5,000 followers as media outlets, making them subject to prosecution if found guilty of spreading fake news or inciting readers to break the law. The bill fails to establish clear standards by which the veracity of reports could be judged, leading human-rights activists to express concern that the law was simply instated as a legal justification for ongoing efforts to suppress free speech.
The Egyptian bill has not yet been signed into law by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, but there are no indications that he opposes the measure, and he recently ratified other legislation tightening government control of online activity.
On July 22, the Russian parliament conducted its first of three votes on a bill that would hold social networks accountable for users’ circulation of false information on their platform. According to the legislation, websites with more than 100,000 visitors per day and a commenting function could be fined 50 million RUB ($800,000 USD) for not removing inaccurate content within 24 hours of its appearance. The law will also require social media companies operating in Russia to establish offices there, which could subject social media giants to increased surveillance from the Russian government.
Flashpoint analysts believe the bill is likely to pass without any serious hurdles, as Russian parliament has demonstrated a willingness to adopt laws governing social media content in the past.
Laws intended to combat fake news introduce a variety of regulatory risk for businesses, especially in countries that adopt legislation broadly worded enough to hold online platforms accountable, not only for the content they publish, but also for the content shared or created by users. As such, companies operating media platforms or social networks with international user bases should monitor the global regulatory landscape for legislation that may present liabilities and adjust their operations accordingly.