Google has banned political advertising in Singapore following the SDP's attempt to purchase ads on its platforms. SDP's Chairman Paul Tambyah wrote to the company to enquire about its shocking policy. In his email to Google CEO Mr Sundar Pichai, Dr Tambyah said that such ads ensure that "Singaporean voters are not deprived of information as they make their choices in the coming election."
This is particularly salient as the print and broadcast media are controlled by the ruling party.
In his reply, Google Vice-President Mr Ted Osius cited the Singapore Government's Code of Practice related to the recently passed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) in instituting the ban.
Dr Tambyah then responded that it was Google Singapore that had invited the SDP to its office (in June this year) to explain the company's services in election campaigns. We made public our visit to the organisation. When we subsequently tried to follow up with Google on the matter, we were suddenly told that the office was reviewing its policy. Shortly thereafter, we received information that Google had banned political advertising in Singapore.
"What happened in between?" Dr Tambyah enquired in his email to Mr Osius.
Below is the correspondence between SDP and Google.
22 November 2019
Dear Mr Sundar
My name is Dr Paul Ananth Tambyah, I am Chairman of the Singapore Democratic Party and also a Professor at a University in Singapore. As you may know, the mainstream media in Singapore are severely constrained in what they can report or discuss. These restrictions were well documented by former editor in chief of Singapore's largest media group Mr Cheong Yip Seng in a book I reviewed.
In recent years, the internet has been comparatively more open although there have been several attempts to rein in free speech on the internet in Singapore through various draconian laws. Some of these were highlighted by Professor Cherian George, a local academic now based in Hong Kong
At the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), we have been highly dependent on social media and the internet to get our message across to the people of Singapore. As such, we were very disturbed to hear from one of our partners that Google was introducing a new "political content policy" for Singapore which would take effect from 2 Dec 2019.
The policy is particularly alarming as it apparently blocks all political advertisements which include anything that "influences or seeks to influence public opinion on a matter which in Singapore is a matter of public interest or public controversy with key examples being those related to race, religion"
This is particularly problematic for Singapore as the Prime Minister has made the controversial racially based selection of our elected President (a largely ceremonial post with some constitutional powers) a key campaign issue. Any criticism of the selective application of racial quotas in an advertisement would potentially be classified as a political ad and banned under the proposed policy.
Furthermore, in an election with the media totally dominated by the state, alternative parties would have no ability to educate and inform the voters of Singapore in the run up to the elections if we are not able to use Google's advertising platforms in the first place.
We had a constructive session with Google Singapore recently. Thus, this new policy is alarming and very disappointing. All political donations and advertising in Singapore are already strictly regulated by the state and all alternative parties provide detailed lists of expenditures to the elections department every election.
These are open to be scrutinized by the mainstream media and thus there is a very low risk of foreign interference or any other malevolent manipulation of online political advertising given Singapore's tightly controlled environment.
The internet has been a breath of fresh air for Singaporeans who want to know more about the richness and diversity of our country and its people. I do hope that Google LLC could step in to help eliminate this draconian policy to ensure that Singaporean voters are not deprived of information as they make their choices in the coming election.
I hope that you will not mind if we make this letter public as it is in the public interest. Looking forward to a good discussion on this matter. Thank you very much and best wishes for the rest of the Deepavali season.
Paul A. Tambyah, MD
Singapore Democratic Party
3 December 2019
Dear Mr Tambyah,
I would like to thank you for your informative note to our CEO about the situation in Singapore. As a company, we support political advertising consistent with our policies and also work hard to ensure that we meet applicable legal requirements around online political advertisements.
Each country has its own legislation when it comes to political advertising. Where applicable, we support political advertising consistent with our policies. However, in the case of Singapore, we decided we will not accept advertising regulated by the Code of Practice for Transparency of Online Political Advertisements. This was not an easy decision to make as Google is committed to delivering useful and relevant election-related information to users around the world. We had made similar decisions elsewhere, such as in Canada and Taiwan.
We will continue to look into how we can support democratic processes around the world, including in Singapore. We have been focused on supporting Singaporeans through media literacy and connecting people to useful information. I hope this has helped to shed some light behind the decision we have taken for Singapore.
Ted Osius, Ambassador (ret.)
Government Affairs and Public Policy, APAC
3 December 2019
Dear Mr Osius,
It is with great disappointment that I read your reply which is not very helpful. I hope Google will answer/explain the following questions:
1. "Each country has its own legislation when it comes to political advertising." What legislation in Singapore bans online political advertising?
2. "Where applicable, we support political advertising consistent with our policies. However, in the case of Singapore, we decided we will not accept advertising..." What sort of political advertising is inconsistent with Google's policies? Has Google seen a preview of the SDP's ads?
3. "We had made similar decisions elsewhere, such as in Canada and Taiwan." Canada and Taiwan are very different societies to Singapore and their relevance to Singapore is not clear.
Google's has long been proud of its stated core beliefs: "Democracy on the web works" and "You can make money without doing evil".
First, how does democracy work on the web when you ban freedom of speech through curtailing online political advertisements?
Second, evil is often perpetrated by people and organisations who, wittingly or otherwise, ban freedom of speech.
Also, Google's mission is "To organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." How is this possible if bona fide information about and from an opposition party in Singapore is banned by Google?
Google's actions are even more incomprehensible considering that it was your Singapore office that invited the SDP to its office to explain your company's services. It was shortly thereafter that we received information that Google had banned political advertisements in Singapore. What happened in between?
I hope you will give a more transparent account of Google's position on this matter. As this is of public interest, I will make our correspondence available to the public as mentioned in my original email.
I look forward to hearing from you.