SINGAPORE – 14 SEP 2021
IMDA has suspended The Online Citizen Pte Ltd’s (“TOC”) class licence to operate its websites1, as well as its social media channels and accounts2.
Registered Internet Content Providers (“ICPs”), such as TOC, which engage in the online promotion or discussion of political issues relating to Singapore, are required to be transparent about their sources of funding. This is to prevent such sites from being controlled by foreign actors, or coming under the influence of foreign entities or funding, and to ensure that there is no foreign influence in domestic politics.
TOC had previously declared its funding sources when it first registered in 2018. However, since 2019, TOC has not fully complied with this obligation. TOC failed to verify a donor and to clarify discrepancies in its foreign advertising revenue in its 2019 declaration, for which IMDA had issued a Warning on 4 May 2021.
For its 2020 annual declaration, TOC repeatedly failed to declare all its funding sources despite multiple reminders and extensions granted to TOC. TOC had also informed IMDA that it does not intend to comply with its obligations under the law. There is no reason for TOC not to comply, as other registered ICPs provide this information in order to be transparent about their sources of funding.
Notwithstanding, IMDA provided a final opportunity for TOC to explain its non-compliance by 13 September 2021. While the response3was received after the stipulated deadline, IMDA has nonetheless fully considered TOC’s representations.
The licence allows for subscription as a revenue model. However, it cannot be used as a loophole for foreign influence and funding. IMDA had repeatedly asked TOC to clarify various elements of its subscription framework. One element of TOC’s subscription framework allowed “subscribers” to get specific articles written, in return for “subscription funding” received. This is a cause for concern as it could be an avenue for foreign influence.
TOC has insisted for such “subscriptions” to be excluded from full declaration of funding sources, while refusing to provide further information to clarify its overall subscription framework. This is not consistent with full disclosure and transparency.
In its 13 September 2021 response to IMDA, TOC has purportedly offered to provide the “necessary declaration”, on the condition that IMDA assures TOC that it will not seek further clarifications regarding TOC’s subscription framework and its funding sources. The requirement for TOC to provide information concerning the provision of its broadcasting service to IMDA is a requirement by law to ensure full transparency. It is therefore not a matter for negotiation with IMDA.
Given that TOC has not provided any good reason for its non-compliance with the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification, IMDA has decided to suspend TOC’s class licence as of 14 September 2021.
With the suspension, TOC is required to stop posting any more articles on its websites and its social media channels and accounts. TOC will also be required to disable them by 3 p.m. on 16 September 2021. TOC is not allowed to operate any new licensable broadcasting services online. If TOC fails to comply, IMDA may take steps to restrict access to these services. It is also a criminal offence for TOC to continue operating these services and its officers may also be held liable. IMDA may also cancel TOC’s class licence if TOC does not provide further information to bring it into full compliance with the Broadcasting Act.
Annex – Clarifications on TOC’s subscription framework
For TOC’s 2020 annual declaration, it chose not to submit any information about its funding sources, despite being fully aware of its obligation to be transparent. Instead, TOC tried to side-step and justify its refusal by alleging interference with the commercial application of a subscription model. A subscription revenue model is allowed. However, it cannot be used as a loophole for foreign influence.
May – Sep
IMDA corresponded with TOC to clarify its subscription framework.
Mar 2020 to Aug 2020
Discrepancies had been observed between the information that TOC reported to IMDA, and on how the site was operated. IMDA, as part of due process, asked for further clarifications based on the details TOC reported. The intent was to ensure that subscription was not used as a loophole for foreign funding.
TOC failed to provide the necessary information despite multiple requests for clarification.
IMDA, as part of ongoing clarifications on various elements of the framework, noted that one element of TOC’s subscription framework allowed “subscribers” to get specific articles written in return for “subscription funding” received, without having to disclose their identity. This is a cause for concern as foreign actors can potentially use this mechanism to pay TOC to write articles that influence domestic politics.
IMDA informed TOC that the ability to commission content was not indicative of a subscription.
Funding for such a purpose would require full disclosure of the identity of the source.
Despite its legal obligations, TOC informed IMDA that it had no intention of providing further answers.
About Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA)
The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) leads Singapore’s digital transformation with infocomm media. To do this, IMDA will develop a dynamic digital economy and a cohesive digital society, driven by an exceptional infocomm media (ICM) ecosystem – by developing talent, strengthening business capabilities, and enhancing Singapore's ICM infrastructure. IMDA also regulates the telecommunications and media sectors to safeguard consumer interests while fostering a pro-business environment, and enhances Singapore’s data protection regime through the Personal Data Protection Commission.
For more news and information, visit www.imda.gov.sg or follow IMDA on LinkedIn (@IMDA), Facebook (@IMDAsg) and Instagram (@IMDAsg).
(Ms) YUEN Hui Tian
(Communications and Marketing)
DID: (65) 6955 0263
(Mr) CHUA Hian Hou
(Communications and Marketing)
DID: (65) 6202 4956