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Making doxxing a legal offence isn’t enough to tackle online harassment in Singapore — we need to empower victims to take action as well: Commentary

Making doxxing a legal offence isn’t enough to tackle online harassment in Singapore — we need to empower victims to take action as well: Commentary

Source: TODAY
Article Date: 03 Apr 2024

Making online spaces less anonymous makes it easier to hold individuals accountable for harmful actions and deter others from engaging in similar behaviour, says this law expert.

Online harassment has become a pervasive problem in Singapore. 

Such acts of harassment include cyberbullying and doxxing — the act of revealing someone’s personal details or any other information that can identify them without their consent, such as their name, residential address, email address, phone number, or photograph. 

In the physical world, people are deterred from assaulting others due to the fear of severe legal consequences, such as lengthy imprisonment and even caning. However, the same cannot be said for those who doxx and cyberbully. 

Despite the lack of formal case reporting, informal platforms including Reddit threads such as r/SingaporeRaw provide glimpses at the negative impacts of such harmful behaviour, including emotional distress and reputational damage. 

There have also been multiple instances reported of cyberbullying victims driven to suicide — both ordinary, everyday folk as well as celebrities such as K-pop stars Sulli and Kim Jonghyun. 

While the Act has offered some recourse for victims since its enactment in 2014, certain areas require further strengthening to effectively combat more forms of online harassment.

STRENGTHENING LEGAL SAFEGUARDS

Currently, most popular platforms, such as Google, Facebook and Reddit have policies which allow victims to put in requests to remove content that harasses or doxxes others. 

Notwithstanding this, most social media platforms and online forums have complex terms of conditions and content moderation practices that could inadvertently protect the perpetrator at the expense of the victim. 

This is because what legally constitutes doxxing is still a grey area — as such, these platforms reserve the right to draw and redraw the lines accordingly. 

Legislative enhancements could provide guidance on how platforms should handle situations where content moderation practices may inadvertently favour the perpetrator over the victim. 

Such legislative enhancements could institutionalise a standardised framework that govern how online platforms should react to doxxing content, what they should do, and when they should take down offending content. 

Although reporting systems exist, platforms’ responsiveness to complaints can be inconsistent. 

Enhanced legislation could set out the timeframe in which platforms must acknowledge and take timely action to remove content that violates anti-doxxing policies. 

In severe cases of online harassment that cross the line into criminal behaviour, legislation could require platforms to have clear protocols for escalating matters to law enforcement. 

This would ensure a more integrated approach between platform-level content moderation and the legal system in the most serious cases.

Legislative enhancements could also mandate that platforms take proactive measures to prevent doxxing, such as platforms detecting and blocking attempts to share private information without consent.

Platforms should also be required to err on the side of victim protection in ambiguous cases while still providing appropriate appeal mechanisms for accused perpetrators.

Victims must be required to provide identity documents to prove that they are indeed the affected individuals when submitting a takedown request, in order to ensure it is a legitimate request. 

The victim should state clearly how the post doxxes them by providing illustrations of how their names, identities, photographs, and other personal information are mentioned. 

REMOVING THE CLOAK OF ANONYMITY

It should also be made mandatory for all platforms that has a nexus to Singapore (such as a pool of Singapore-based users) to collect users’ mobile phone numbers during account registration. 

In today’s context, mobile phone numbers would be easily traceable to a user. 

Currently, many online platforms, such as Quora, Reddit and HardwareZone allow users to remain pseudonymous.

In 2016, the University of Queensland’s David M Douglas noted that “de-anonymisation might be justified as a means of limiting or stopping such hate speech by increasing the speaker’s accountability”.

This means that perpetrators of harassment would not only be more inclined to take down an offending post if their cloaks of anonymity are removed — they may even think twice before harassing others at all. 

Identification also makes it easier for victims to take legal action, if necessary, against perpetrators.

However, once perpetrators’ identities have been privately revealed to victims for the purpose of seeking appropriate recourse, victims should in turn be placed under similar obligations not to publicly expose these identities.

Making online spaces less anonymous and more transparent also makes it easier to hold individuals accountable for harmful actions and deter others from engaging in similar behaviour.

GIVING VICTIMS MORE CONSIDERATION

Poha criminalises various forms of harassment, both online and offline. 

It empowers the court to issue protection orders and expedited protection orders to stop the harassment and remove related content. 

While the Protection from Harassment Court aims to make it easier for victims to obtain remedies under Poha, this still involves legal proceedings and victims need to navigate the court process. 

Claimants who are unfamiliar with legal terminologies, processes or documentation would likely need to engage a lawyer. 

The idea of new legislative enhancements enabling victims to directly request takedowns of doxxing content from platforms based on pre-defined guidelines, without needing to go through the courts, could potentially fill the gap. 

Naturally, exceptions would have to be carved out to allow media outlets to report on news.

As things stand, without a court order, it is entirely at online platforms’ discretion to accede to or reject requests from victims of doxxing to take down offending posts or to de-anonymise perpetrators. 

Victims could spend much time and effort wrangling with these platforms in order to remove the offending information. 

In these cases where the perceived lack of cooperation from online platforms allows perpetrators to avoid any consequences, victims have no other recourse but to give up and resign to their fates. 

Many victims end up exiting such platforms altogether, thus enabling and emboldening perpetrators to continue harassing others.  

Enhancing self-help mechanism allows for early intervention and removes the hassle and trepidation of having to go through the court system. 

NO PLACE FOR VIGILANTISM

The cost to the online platform of removing an offending post upon receiving a complaint is negligible. 

On the other hand, requiring law enforcement to investigate and then request that the platform take down an offending post is a significant cost to society. 

Some critics argue that giving victims the power to request that online platforms remove harmful posts is a curtailment of the freedom of expression — but these naysayers fail to understand the very essence of such freedoms. 

Netizens who harass others to silence them and push them off online platforms and social media are the biggest impediment to freedom of expression. 

Doxxing on the pretext of individual vigilantism, while often motivated by a desire for justice or retribution, has no place in a well-functioning legal system. 

Empowering victims is the key to stop and prevent doxxing and cyberbullying. Improved self-help mechanisms would build upon, rather than duplicate, existing platform policies, thus helping to foster a more respectful and safer online community. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Ben Chester Cheong is a law lecturer at Singapore University of Social Sciences, lawyer at RHTLaw Asia LLP, and doctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge. He has conducted public enrichment talks on cyberbullying, harassment, stalking, and defamation.

Copyright 2024 MediaCorp Pte Ltd | All Rights Reserved

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