As the ‘human flesh search engine’ of online vigilantism grows, measures to deal with doxxing critical, MPs say

As the ‘human flesh search engine’ of online vigilantism grows, measures to deal with doxxing critical, MPs say

Parliament passed amendments to the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) on May 7, 2019, which means that perpetrators of "doxxing" could be fined up to S$5,000 or jailed up to six months if the intention was to cause harassment, or 12 months if the intention was to cause fear or provoke violence.

SINGAPORE: Members of Parliament (MP) on Tuesday (May 7) welcomed the criminalisation of “doxxing” under new amendments to the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA), stressing the need for such laws as online vigilantism becomes more “rampant”.

Doxxing is the act of publishing personal information like photos, contact numbers or employment details with the intention to harass.

Parliament on Tuesday passed amendments to the Act, which means that perpetrators of doxxing could be fined up to S$5,000 or jailed up to six months if the intention was to cause harassment, or 12 months if the intention was to cause fear or provoke violence.

In their debate on the amendments, MPs said online vigilantism impinges on individuals’ personal rights, hurts their physical, mental and financial health, and sometimes targets the wrong people.

MP for Nee Soon GRC Lee Bee Wah said Singapore has seen its fair share of victims who were mistakenly identified.

She pointed to one incident in April 2017, where employees of a local bank were wrongly identified as the perpetrators in a viral video showing a young couple bullying an elderly man at a Toa Payoh hawker centre. 

Netizens circulated their photos online and some even threatened to boycott the bank.

The wrongly identified woman later recounted her ordeal in a Facebook post, calling it “an emotional period and scary moment”.

Speaking about the same case, Nominated MP Lim Sun Sun said the chances of getting it wrong are “high”, especially as netizens often use partial information shared on social media, like grainy videos and blurry photographs.

“Such mistaken identification can lead to incalculable emotional and financial costs for the unfortunate individuals,” she added.

Even if the perpetrators are correctly identified, Dr Lee said harassing them is “never justified”.

“If someone has done something objectionable, we can deal with it through our laws,” Dr Lee added. “But we cannot allow people to harass them in real life. That is like taking justice in your own hands, no different from secret societies or prehistoric villagers.”

READ: "Doxxing" to be criminalised under amendments to Protection from Harassment Act

Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Chia Shi-Lu said the administration of justice is “not an activity which can be done part-time, remotely nor casually”. “Thorough investigations of the facts of the events are necessary, in fairness to all parties involved,” he said.

“I urge all those who truly value justice to consider joining the police force, where you can put your ‘CSI’ skills to good use,” Dr Lee added. “There is no need to take matters into your own hands.”

On the other hand, Professor Lim said the court of public opinion only hands down premature sentences that could be “disproportionately harsh”.

“Indeed, the equivalent Chinese term for doxxing is ‘human flesh search engine’,” she added. “This term graphically captures the rabid zeal with which online vigilantes hunt down and tear apart their targets.”

"AMBIGUITY" IN DEFINITION OF OFFENCE?

Nominated MP Walter Theseira also shared about his experience being harassed online after a comment he made to the media on CPF policy was taken out of context by an online website and posted on Facebook.

As the post went viral, Dr Theseira said netizens insulted his appearance, qualifications and even made outright threats of violence. An individual even turned up at the university where Dr Theseira to look for him.

“It turned out he had come to complain about my dangerous views on CPF to me in person, or perhaps to the university management. So I explained the context to him. It turned out he was not unreasonable, just misinformed,” he added.

“But it did cross my mind that not all unexpected visitors might be reasonable people.”

Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng welcomed the criminalisation of doxxing, noting that online vigilantism is becoming more “rampant” in society. But he pointed out that there is “ambiguity” on what constitutes an offence under the Bill.

Mr Ng gave the example of a 2016 incident when a person posted on Facebook the vehicle plate number of a driver who allegedly ran over a dog in a hit-and-run. The person requested anyone who knew the driver’s identity to text or message a private number. 

But angry netizens used the plate number to obtain and publish the driver’s personal particulars online, before harassing her and her employer. It subsequently emerged that the woman had not in fact been driving the vehicle at the time.

Mr Ng asked if the initial action of publishing the woman’s vehicle plate number would be considered doxxing.

“This story highlights my broader concern about the difficulty in determining whether there was intention to cause harm, alarm, or distress by the publication of identity information, or whether the conduct was reasonable,” he added.

Jurong GRC MP Rahayu Mahzam also sought similar clarifications.

“Would an individual who has published the details about the target person, but without making any further statement urging action to be taken against him or her, be able to argue in defence that there was no intention to cause harm, but just to share information?” she asked.

A DEFENCE OF REASONABLENESS

In response, Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong said the law provides for a defence of reasonableness. “If a person can prove that his conduct was reasonable, he would not be guilty of the offences,” he explained.

Posts that merely state opinions or are meant to encourage social debate also do not fall within the ambit of the offences, Mr Tong added.

Edwin Tong
Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong speaking in Parliament on May 7, 2019.

For a person to be prosecuted under the offence of doxxing, Mr Tong said it has to be established beyond any reasonable doubt that the intention of the posting or the publication was to cause the harassment.

For instance, if a person publishes someone’s personal information with words that encourage harassment or violence, or in a forum dedicated to hunting down and harassing “wrongdoers”, the Courts could decide that there was intention.

Personal identity information is defined as information that on its own or with other information identifies, or purports to identify, the victim. This includes photographs, contact details, address and place of employment.

Mr Tong added that the Bill does not distinguish between the original publisher or someone who reposts the publication, noting that the “key factor is intention behind publication”.

“The original publisher might not have had ill-intent but someone who re-posts may then have,” he continued. “Judges will have to look at the specific facts and overall context of each case … and then make an overall assessment.”

Source: CNA/mt(hs)

Bookmark