Crackdown against online harassment: govt must be transparent
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Written by Ng E-Jay
20 November 2013
I welcome the government’s move to crack down on online harassment. But it is vital that the new laws must be carefully crafted, and the process of implementing and enforcing them must be transparent, lest anti-bullying legislation becomes a convenient tool to silence legitimate dissent or deny the right of commentators to engage in vigorous and sometimes emotional debate.
Law Minister K Shanmugam has said that a review of legal provisions to address the issue of online harassment could take place early next year, and that conduct which is considered unacceptable in the physical world must also be resisted in the virtual world. According to a 2012 survey by Microsoft, Singapore had the second highest rate of online bullying of youths aged 8 to 17, just behind China.
Mr Shanmugam said he prefers to use the law as a last resort to deal with harassment cases, and that ideally, self-help should come first, where there are appropriate avenues for corrections or clarifications.
Without further details however, I remain cautious as to the direction the new legislation will take, how effective they will be in curbing cyber-bullying, and whether they will be abused to silence free speech and legitimate criticism of government policies or the political system.
In my opinion, online harassment that must not be condoned by the new legislation should include physical threats, defaming a person’s character or marital or sexual fidelity, cyber-stalking, as well as highly vexatious insults that cause actual psychological harm to minors.
It is also very important to consider less obvious but no less malicious forms of cyber-harassment, which may include plagiarism of a person’s writings, impersonation of a person online either through Facebook, Twitter or other websites, and spamming a person’s work place or family with derogatory emails or other insulting messages with the aim of intimidating the person.
These forms of cyber-harassment may not be covered by the law, but there should be channels set up by the online community through which they can be addressed. All too often, victims of online bullying have no legal recourse because the deed, while malicious, is not covered by the law. An independent online commission should be set up to deal with such cases.
It must also be recognized that not everyone will play it fair, and there will always be people out there who will abuse the rules to their own ends. There is a Facebook group, called Fabrications About The PAP, which regularly complains to facebook to have critical commentators silenced. This is not right. This is an example of abuse.
I am concerned that the powers that be may use the new laws to clamp down on legitimate but highly vigorous debate on government policies and Singapore’s political system. As it is, political websites like TOC are being gazetted by the MDA, and news websites such as Yahoo Singapore are being asked by the MDA to conform to new and stringent rules that are aimed at tying their hands and feet so that they cannot report or comment freely on social or political issues.
I am also concerned with the level of transparency as well as the level of administrative leeway the authorities will have in interpreting and enforcing the new laws. The notion of cyber-bullying can easily be expanding to include anything critical of the elite and politically connected. While the laws aim to protect the innocent from harm, they can also be used to protect the powerful from scrutiny.
We must first begin by developing more mature ideas of what constitute cyber-bullying, and what constitutes legitimate but vociferous and at times highly emotive and unsettling commentary.
As Dr Vincent Wijeysingha has eloquently put in in his Facebook note (see here), the right of free speech must include the “license to offend“.
In the process of speaking and answering we will, no doubt, irritate and antagonise. This is, as they say, par for the course. In fact it is a prerequisite of the course because encountering and, more importantly, tolerating views that disturb us is the only way to sift the relevant from the irrelevant and the useful from the useless. Regrettably, but inevitably, politeness and harmony are the first but necessary casualties of progress in thinking.
Those who offer their thoughts to the public debate perform a great service to the community. It is on their shoulders that the discourse rests. But they must expect not just scrutiny but also unfair, offensive, even hurtful comment. It is the bounty placed on public intellection.
In short, the freedom of expression must include the license to offend.
There is all too often, the thinnest of lines between the license to offend and the right to defame or hurt. That is why we should view the new legislation with caution and demand transparency as to their interpretation and enforcement.