Anti-harassment laws — cyberspace is just too huge

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Harassers, watch out. Anti-harassment laws passed in Parliament yesterday would allow possible imprisonment for some behaviour. Yet they may not address the difficulties of dealing with online harassers, said Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC’s Member of Parliament, Hri Kumar.

“Even though the provisions have been worded to take into account harassment made via online communications, and also to account for offenders in foreign jurisdictions, the cloak of anonymity that cyber-bullies hide behind may prevent the Bill from being effectively enforced,” he said.

Previously, offenders were merely fined under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act. The new Bill will beef up its punishments, including mandatory treatment orders for harassers believed to have mental conditions.

Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said the act would cover online abuses including sexual harassment, cyber-bullying, and stalking would be made unlawful.

“Where the identity of the publisher cannot be ascertained, such a person may be identified by his username or account, Internet location address, website or email address,” said Shanmugam. Victims do not have to identify the real name of the harasser before seeking a protection order.

However, one must also note that the rogue netizens of the online world are very quick to cough up every nitty-gritty details of any individual – harasser or otherwise – to the public through forums like HardwareZone and Sammyboy Forum.

Anton Casey and Caleb Rozario were two examples of such cases. How these issues would be addressed remained unclear.

“Therefore, we must beef up the resources of the Technology Crime Division of the CID so that they can investigate technology-related offences beyond the Computer Misuse Act. Will we be doing so?” Hri Kumar asked.

Another problem is when victims of cyber-harassment pursue civil claims, he added.

“If the perpetrator is anonymous, civil remedies may prove ineffective”, he said, as the resources that would go into finding the harasser online may be above and beyond the means of many ordinary people.

“Is there any way the Government can assist in such technical matters at no or low cost, if the applicant is able to demonstrate a good case?” he said.

Shanmugan also said yesterday: “Victims have the right to request that relevant parties publish their replies to correct falsehoods; harassment victims can do so if they do not want to escalate the matter.”

However, facts and accusations remained a blur in the online world, with many building false accusations on top of facts. In the case of Caleb Rozario, some of the threats to blow up Marina Bay Sands were not posted by him but tailored by other online netizens, according to Rozario.

“In the time it will take for the Court to determine if the statement of fact complained of is false and for the remedy to be effected, the false statement would have travelled around the world many times over,” Hri said.

In a letter to Today newspaper this week, Jeraldine Phneah who is a Miss Singapore World 2013 finalist, also pointed out that it would be difficult to correctly pinpoint the person accountable in cyberspace.

“If there was an online lynch mob, who would be accountable? The person who started the thread or the one who urged others to join in — or everyone involved?”