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Supo: Spreading fake news on behalf of foreign power should be illegal

While the Finnish Intelligence and Security Service (Supo) wants to crack down on disinformation, experts in criminal law have reservations about the proposal.

Supo has proposed criminalising spreading disinformation on behalf of a foreign actor. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

The Finnish Intelligence and Security Service (Supo) has proposed the criminalisation of information spread on the behalf of a foreign state.

According to Supo, it would be necessary to evaluate and find out whether the most blatant forms of disinformation should be regulated as punishable by law.

The proposal appeared from a statement given by Supo's director, Antti Pelttari, to a parliamentary transport and communications committee in regards to recent changes in the security environment.

According to the statement from April, this law would apply to situations where a foreign intelligence service or an individual acting on behalf of a foreign intelligence service attempts to maliciously influence the Finnish state's or society's decision-making.

MP Ari Koponen (Finns) took up Supo's proposal in May and submitted a draft measure to Parliament. Koponen pro[osed that the government take measures to implement Supo's recommendations.

In a statement given to Yle, Pelttari's deputy at Supo Teemu Turunen stressed that, in his view, any criminalisation should be strictly limited.

"Of course, it is of paramount importance that freedom of expression is fully respected in the rule of law," Turunen clarified.

He went on to say that this measure would be directed at those deliberately spreading disinformation.

"This would concern situations where a person knows that he or she is acting on behalf of a foreign intelligence service and continues to do so despite warnings from the authorities," Turunen said.

Criminal law professor has reservations

Kimmo Nuotio, a criminal law professor at the University of Helsinki has reservations regarding the proposed law.

"Yes, I would say that the real protection against information interference comes through public debate and the media. In our country, information literacy significantly weakens foreign actors' ability to influence public opinion," Nuotio told Yle.

However, he did say it may make sense to codify certain aspects of disinformation.

"It is quite possible, however, that some well-defined criminalisation of this area could be possible," Nuotio added.

Should be further defined

Turunen and Nuotio agreed that the sections of the Criminal Code are quite dated given the current information and media environment. However, Nuotio emphasised that reforming the law must be long-term.

"It seems that such reforms may be coming from countries that are not good role models for us. The interest in freedom of expression is extremely important," Nuotio said.

According to Nuotio, if the idea were to be taken forward, a precise delineation of what entails deliberate disinformation would be important.

The proposal is not intended to address the activities of so-called "useful idiots". A useful idiot is defined as an actor who distributes the propaganda of another party or acts in the interests of another, without necessarily being fully aware that he is doing so.