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Fake News law may help businesses

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Companies may be able to use new law to fight dishonest competitors who threaten their brand

Beyond Meat makes cows happy and cardiologists sad. Its Beyond Burger uses no meat and has no cholesterol, and contains less fat, fewer calories and more protein than a typical burger.

Yet, diners are astonished to discover that the plant-based offering is virtually indistinguishable from beef.

Many believe that Beyond Burger and its ilk to be yet another Western innovation.

We in the East know this to be fake news.

After all, for centuries the Chinese have been serving mock mutton, pretend pork, fake fish and deceptive duck.

They are made of wheat gluten, soya, agar and other plant-based ingredients.

Over in India, vegetarianism has long taken root. An estimated half a billion Indians eschew meat, and chew tofu, cheese and lentils instead.

But because of Beyond Meat's success, meat industry groups are lobbying to prevent such bogus burgers from being labelled with words such as "meat", "beef" or "pork".

This recalls the US court cases that the dairy industry fought to prevent others from using "butter", "margarine", "yoghurt", "milk" or even "soy milk" in their product names.

In Europe, the producers of champagne fought and lost their bid to stop a sorbet maker from using "champagne" to market its dessert.

The European Court of Justice said it was fine to do so because, well, the sorbet really did taste like champagne.

The point is this: businesses fight disinformation and protect their brands by using tried-and-tested laws relating to intellectual property and unfair competition.

In Singapore, though, we may have gained a new weapon in the legal arsenal. Lawmakers voted on May 8 to pass the fake news law, or to use its official name, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma).

So far, the focus has been on Pofma's use in social and political situations.

But here is an interesting question: can listcos use Pofma to fight fake news?

Having analysed Pofma, here is how I think it can be used to fight hoaxes and lies spread by unscrupulous competitors to target a particular company.

First, the business has to identify a false statement that has been put online.

Second, the business has to explain why that statement causes harm to the public. For example, the business can show that the false statement causes panic among consumers or investors.

Third, the business can then ask the authorities to order the false statement to be corrected or removed. That is all it takes.

It is faster and cheaper than the old way, where the business had to engage forensic experts, serve legal papers on someone, go to court, and then have many follow- up hearings.

It may have been an unintended consequence, but Pofma could work as a tool for honest businesses to protect themselves against dishonest competitors and short-sellers.

And that is enough for me to raise a glass of champagne sorbet.

The writer is a partner and the head of IP & TMT at TSMP Law Corporation. This article appeared in The Business Times yesterday.