Do anti-online harassment laws mask real intent of the Govt?

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PM Lee Hsien Loong

This is a guest post. The author blogs at Jentrified Citizen

“Satisfied people don’t have time to go onto the Internet. Unhappy people often go there,” said PM Lee Hsien Loong at a forum yesterday . This comment seems to be the latest sign of the PAP-government’s belligerent attitude towards the online world.

PM Lee Hsien Loong

This comment by PM Lee was reported as part of the current spate of news reports, editorials and letters published in MSM – all aimed at drumming up support for our government’s move to introduce new laws against cyber harassment. Many of the govt officials, reporters and letter writers cited the dubious survey by REACH (the govt’s feedback arm) to claim that 8 of 10 Singapore “residents” want tougher rules against online harassment.

I am against cyber bullying but I also believe many people may be supporting this move without being aware that the PAP-Govt could be using this as an opportunity to a) attack the credibility of the online world to diminish criticisms of the PAP and b) to tighten the laws such that netizens will have more fear and lesser freedom online to criticize incompetent PAP leaders, flawed national policies and the Party.

Some political observers believe that this is a strategic war move that the beleaguered PAP leaders are making to shore up their defences in the run-up to GE2016. The signs have already been there since GE 2011 when government leaders started referring to the online world as “the wild, wild west”; their online critics as the “lunatic fringe”; made numerous slurs about the “vocal minority” online and subsequently introduced the new MDA ruling earlier this year to curb the reach and proliferation of online sites and blogs that are increasingly critical about our incompetent government. Demonising the online world by describing it as a vile place full of trolls, hackers and crazy anti-establishment bullies is a devious political strategy to discredit it.

And now, riding on a flimsy survey by their propaganda arm REACH, and leveraging off the recent website defacements, the Government is making its move to tighten their invisible net on the Net by introducing tougher laws against harassment online. Just how far will they go with these laws?

Their approach to the new online laws betrays their real intent because if they were sincere about protecting those who are being cyber bullied while balancing not being a paternalistic nanny, surely they would have focused the new laws on cyber bullying? The fact that they have come out with guns blazing to say that they want to introduce tougher laws against online “harassment” implies a lot as the word harassment is very vague and the act of harassment spans a broad and grey continuum of behaviours.

What is harassment? How will it be defined? There are 1,001 degrees of what constitutes harassment. Is a political cartoon or a meme mocking govt leaders deemed as harassment? Is using an anonymous profile to question and critique a Minister on his Facebook page or to tweet a not so nice comment considered cyber bullying or even harassment of the minister? How many times must one do this to run afoul of the new laws? And really, shouldn’t the focus of the laws be to tackle genuine cyber bullying cases and not harassment which is so vague? In fact, if the G wants to tackle serious harassment, it should step up its efforts offline where it is much more common and worrying There are many cases of sexual harassment at work and bullying at schools for example, but I don’t see our government making a big deal out of that.

It is precisely the vagueness of this word “harassment” that benefits the increasingly defensive Government. Keeping it grey and the laws broad could give them wide powers to deal with unfavourable online comments and netizens as they deem fit, just like how the recent MDA online ruling has been kept very general.

Yes, anti-harassment laws could instill more civility in cyberspace, but if too broad and unfettered, they could also spread fear, yet again, among Singaporeans, who have only recently started emerging from their fear of speaking up for their rights and to criticise the government policies that hurt the people. The net effect of increasingly repressive laws could lead to a muzzling of online criticisms of the government. A most desirable outcome for the PAP.

“Nothing is as it seems. Black can appear white when the light is blinding but white loses all luster at the faintest sign of darkness.” – Christopher Pike

The author blogs at http://jentrifiedcitizen.wordpress.com