Monday, 8 April 2019

Doxxing set to be outlawed under changes to harassment laws to deter online vigilantism

Practice of doxxing set to be outlawed but observers see challenges ahead
Online vigilantes' practice of publishing personal info of individuals online set to be outlawed, but observers see challenges ahead
By Cara Wong, The Sunday Times, 7 Apr 2019

Many have been shamed publicly, some received death threats, others lost their jobs, and a number have even fled the country - all because they have been "doxxed".

Online vigilantes have "doxxed" these individuals by publishing their personal information online - in the pursuit of justice or malicious fun - after viewing them as perpetrators in incidents usually involving public spats, ungracious behaviour or offending online posts.

In making public information such as the individuals' names, contact numbers, addresses or employment details on online forums or social media, the aim is to cause and facilitate harassment, violence or fear of violence towards such victims.

This practice of "doxxing" is now set to be outlawed with the amendments to the Protection from Harassment Act introduced last Monday to plug an existing gap in the legislation that only forbids using abusive and insulting language and behaviour to harass a victim.

But observers say the new law may face challenges in implementation, citing several grey areas that have to be clarified, such as how to define "doxxing" and how to determine culpability.

Professor David Tan of National University of Singapore's (NUS) law faculty said a big challenge is to define what constitutes permissible online shaming and what would be harassment.

For example, simply identifying a person who parked in a disabled parking space should be allowed.

But a post that includes a call to action - such as urging others to share contact details of such an inconsiderate person to make prank calls or food deliveries - would be "doxxing" and is forbidden, said Prof Tan, who teaches courses in privacy and data protection law.

However, complications arise in determining whether an act is "doxxing" or not, as it depends on the context in which the comments are made, said lawyers and experts.

One potential loophole could be when a netizen does not make a call to action to harass the victim but merely posts identifiable details about a person along with an angry comment, said lawyer Lionel Tan.

Mr Tan said the netizen behind such a post could argue that the information was meant to shame the person into changing his behaviour.

As there is no real threat of violence or harassment, the defence could argue the predominant intent was not to harass the person, said Mr Tan, who specialises in social media at law firm Rajah and Tann.

However, even if the original publisher argues he did not intend to harass the victim by publishing details such as his name and a video of him driving dangerously, other netizens may interpret his original post differently and take action, he added.

The prosecution could still make a case if it establishes that it is clear, from the circumstances, that the publisher knew or ought to know that his acts would have resulted in harassment, said Mr Tan.

Criminal lawyer Joel Ng said that in certain scenarios, the prosecution may have to rely heavily on the type of information revealed to demonstrate the person's intent.

It would be obvious when netizens post information, like phone numbers or addresses, that provides avenues for the person to be contacted and harassed, he added.

"These are the certain kinds of information which would be very difficult for one to say that they can't reasonably expect harassment to occur as a result of it," said Mr Ng.

The offence should still stand if the identifiable information is already available online, like through the person's public Facebook page or workplace address, he added.

"Just because certain information can be found publicly doesn't mean that you should still post them to the world at large," he said.


Others still worry that the new law would ensnare third-party sites on which online vigilantes operate.

The site moderators of Facebook page SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh, which is home to such self-styled vigilantes since it started in 2014, said they have tried to prevent readers from "doxxing" people in the videos they post.

In a recent incident where a woman accused her Gojek driver of kidnapping her following a dispute over the travel route, netizens "doxxed" the woman and published her full name and employment details, despite warnings from the site moderators.

"As it is, we all have our own day jobs and we don't have moderators who are able to monitor comments 24/7," said an administrator, declining to be named, who helps run the site that began "vigilante work" to expedite the course of justice by sharing videos and articles as well as posting about everyday issues.

"If an incriminating comment is posted and we don't discover it, we are concerned that the courts will still consider us liable."

Lawyer Lionel Tan said it is possible that such sites may be liable if they republish the original publisher's harassment-inducing content. It depends if it can be shown that these sites intended to cause harassment by doing so, he added.

According to Dr Carol Soon, senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, people engage in "doxxing" because it is an easy and risk-free way for them to right a wrong behaviour or situation.

"Technology has given people a too-easy way out to call out unacceptable behaviour - they take pictures and videos of the perpetrator and post them online for the general public who then serve as jury and judge," said Dr Soon, who is a member of the Media Literacy Council.

Prominent "doxxing" cases she cited include Briton Anton Casey, the man who was "doxxed" in 2014, after he made disparaging comments on social media about poor people on public transport.

Netizens found his employment details, supervisor's contact and residential address within hours of his posts, and Mr Casey ended up losing his job and fleeing Singapore after receiving death threats.

Last year, netizens also dug up information on the BMW driver who refused to pay for an unwanted fuel top-up, and they published his full name, work address and phone number online.

He was reported to have received many nuisance calls, SMSes and WhatsApp messages, and he later filed a police report as he was worried for the safety of his family.

The new law could deter such online vigilantism that causes distress and fear of harm, said Dr Soon.


However, some also worry that, like all cybercrimes, it would be difficult to nab perpetrators who can hide in the shadows of the Internet by using technology such as virtual private networks.

Said NUS' law dean Simon Chesterman: "If an individual is motivated and technically competent, it is possible to publish truly threatening information without it being traceable."

Where a person's personal information is published to cause harassment, alarm or distress, perpetrators will face a maximum sentence of a $5,000 fine and a six-month jail term. In instances where the information is published to cause fear of violence or facilitate violence, or where the perpetrator has reasonable cause to believe that would be so, they can be fined $5,000 or jailed for up to 12 months

Criminal lawyer Rajan Supramaniam said the police need to be given resources and training to identify "doxxing", which is already difficult to establish as it involves proving ill intentions.

But Professor Chesterman also said there needs to be a clear line drawn between what is the "normal cut and thrust of Internet discourse and online vigilantism".

Citing how the legislation calls for proof in intention to cause harassment, alarm and distress, he said: "That threshold will need to be set high if it is to avoid unnecessarily chilling any post with 'identity information' - which is defined as including a person's name or photograph."

Additional reporting by Euodia Chi

The debate over doxxing: People never let me forget, says Amy Cheong
By Cara Wong, The Sunday Times, 7 Apr 2019

It has been seven years since her racially insensitive online post about weddings held at HDB void decks, but Ms Amy Cheong still constantly gets reminded of what she did.

The reminders come from strangers who send her messages that are "not very nice" though no longer threatening, compared to those she received back in 2012.

Also, her name continues to be brought up as an example of offensive speech that Singapore needs to guard against, like it did again on Monday when Parliament held a debate over hate speech.

At the same sitting, a "doxxing" offence was also tabled as part of changes to the Protection from Harassment Act that would criminalise the publication of one's personally identifiable information in a bid to deter online vigilantism, which also triggered references to what Ms Cheong experienced from netizens.

Speaking to The Sunday Times over the phone, Ms Cheong said she has been punished over and over again for hurting others with her words, and now hopes to move on - and away from the spotlight.

"Whatever goes online will always be there; a Google search is all they need. It's a perpetual sentence in a virtual prison for me," said Ms Cheong, who hears from friends and family whenever her name appears as an example in the media.

Ms Cheong shot to infamy here in October 2012 for her expletive-filled private Facebook post complaining about a lengthy Malay wedding at a void deck, and she was deemed to have mocked the divorce rate among Malays.

The post was circulated online by one of her friends then, where it quickly gained traction with netizens who branded her a racist and dug out details on her employment and family background.

Immediately after the posts, people called for the then 37-year-old to be sacked from her job as an assistant director at the National Trades Union Congress, and hurled threats at her both online and offline.

She was soon dismissed from the labour movement.

Till this day, that single moment of indiscretion - made in a moment of frustration - has relentlessly haunted not just her, but the people around her, Ms Cheong told The Sunday Times.

Even after she left Singapore shortly after, people tracked her down and harassed her at her home and online, said Ms Cheong, who was a permanent resident here.

Ms Cheong said she regrets making the post and added that she never meant it in a racist way.

"My statement, although stemming from frustration and posted on my private Facebook page, was no doubt inappropriate and it is the only thing I have ever regretted doing in my life.

"I have come to recognise first-hand how much damage it can cause - when you put something insensitive online, you lose control of where it goes, how it mutates, or how it is interpreted thereafter," she said.

Adding that it has been a painful and humbling journey with no end in sight, Ms Cheong has learnt to take precautions to protect herself and those around her.

She declined to give details on her current whereabouts, family background and employment, fearing that others might find and harass her.

"I have gone from being a heart-and-soul career woman to someone still trying to accept the fact that a traditional corporate path is now beyond my reach," said Ms Cheong, speaking for the first time to Singapore media since 2013.

Till today, she said she feels a deep sense of shame for herself and those around her, and she lives in fear that she will have to face criticisms and judgments any time this subject comes up again.

"It is horrifying to go from being an extremely private person to being so publicly exposed. Even till today, the weight of people's judgment can be so crushing, but that is the price to be paid and I accept that," said Ms Cheong.

In her darkest moments, she sought solace in her Christian faith, and said it is her faith that has helped her to accept her past and move forward every day.

There have also been many instances where she has received support and help when it seemed there is no light at the end of the tunnel, she said. "The capacity to care and to be kind is certainly still out there," she added.

Ms Cheong said she wants to have some form of closure on this matter.

"It is heart-wrenching to see my name crop up again and again as an example for anything related to this topic, whether indirectly or directly in Singapore," she said. "There are really no second chances to be had and no way to turn back."

Having experienced first-hand the aftermath of online vigilantism, she hopes the new "doxxing" offence would bring "the fair powers of justice back into the rightful hands of the system".

Ms Cheong also hopes that others will "think 10 times" before they post something online, as "a sentence or a paragraph can never describe your mindset, intentions or actions in a watertight manner".

Also, online vigilantism can bring about a punishment that knows no boundaries, she added.

"Ultimately, no law can prevent unkindness or inhumanity. Only when society practises the will to be kind to each other, only then will things change," said Ms Cheong.

"I am speaking out today because if my story can stop just one person from saying or doing something that will bring about the same pain, then that is what I will do."

Parliament: 'Doxxing' set to be outlawed under changes to harassment laws to deter online vigilantism
Online vigilantes who publish others' details could face jail
By Cara Wong, The Straits Times, 2 Apr 2019

When public spats go viral on social media, some online vigilantes will dig up information about their victims and post it on public forums.

Such actions - known as doxxing - could soon lead to fines or jail with the proposed introduction of a new offence which criminalises the act of publishing identifiable information about a person to harass, cause violence or fear of violence to the person.

It is part of a slew of proposed changes to the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) introduced in Parliament yesterday by Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong.

The Act provides criminal and civil remedies against harassment, and was enacted in 2014.

"In recent years, there has been an increasing trend of an individual's personal information being consolidated and published online with a view to harassing the said individual," the Law Ministry said in a statement.

"The amendments will prohibit the publication of such personal information where it is done with an intention to harass the victim," it added.

Personal information includes names, e-mail addresses, phone numbers, passwords, photographs or even information about the individual's family, employment or education.

Examples of "doxxing", as outlined by the Law Ministry, include: Falsely declaring that a person is a "prostitute" on social media and including the person's photos and contact details to incite others to harass her, or posting a video of a person containing his contact information and calling for others to threaten or attack the person.

In situations where personal information is published to cause harassment, alarm or distress, the maximum sentence is a $5,000 fine and six-month jail term.

Where the information is published to cause fear of violence or facilitate violence, or where the perpetrator has reasonable cause to believe that would be so, perpetrators can be fined $5,000 or jailed up to 12 months.

Only individuals can be victims of "doxxing", the Law Ministry said, and not entities such as companies or organisations.

While lawyers and experts welcomed the introduction of the new offence, some also raised concerns over administrative matters such as how the police would be able to recognise and nab the "doxxers".

"Because of the flexible and dynamic nature of cyber crimes, without the proper awareness and training, it can be a challenge for the authorities to enforce the law," said lawyer Rajan Supramaniam.

Mr Gregory Vijayendran, president of the Law Society, also noted that it would not be easy for the prosecution to prove that someone is guilty of "doxxing", as there are several elements that they have to prove, including the person's animus towards the victim.

"There is a concern from the prosecutors' point of view, how do you prove these elements, when they are all matters relating to the person's state of mind?" said Mr Vijayendran.

However, the new offence could hopefully help to stimulate the right kind of Internet etiquette as it functions as an "out of bounds" marker, he added. "That way it does encourage some kind of responsible behaviour online," he said.

Associate Professor of Law Goh Yihan noted that netizens have little to worry about if they practise good Internet etiquette and post responsibly with empathy.

Prof Goh said: "The aim of these amendments is not to chill public discourse, but rather, to improve the quality of public discourse by ensuring that, among others, the wide reach of social media is not wrongly used to cause harassment or alarm to anyone in particular."


Doxxing is:

• When you publish a social media post abusing and insulting another person on his or her alleged sexual promiscuity, and include the person's photos and contact details to facilitate identification or contact.

• When you post identifiable information of a person on social media and encourage others to "teach him a lesson".

• When you post identifiable information of a person on a website or comment thread, where others have been calling for that person to be identified so he can be threatened or attacked.

• When you post a video of a publicly known person, including his contact information, and call for others to threaten or attack the person.

Doxxing is not:

• Posting a video of a person driving recklessly on an online forum, with the intent to warn people to drive safely.

• Posting a video of a public dispute on a video-sharing platform, along with a factual account of what you observed.

• Sharing a person's information with emergency services or other public authorities for necessary action to be taken.

• Posting a video of a publicly known person in an interview, where he is being asked questions about publicly known facts.

More court protection for victims of online falsehoods
By Cara Wong, The Straits Times, 2 Apr 2019

Individuals and companies which cannot get their harassers to take down false statements about them online can turn to the courts for corrections to be posted, under a proposed law introduced in Parliament yesterday.

When the falsehood is deemed or likely to have caused serious harm to the applicant's reputation, the courts can also order third parties - such as a media outlet - to publish the correction and draw people's attention to it.

Another change, spelt out in the Protection from Harassment (Amendment) Bill, will allow the courts to make interim orders to stop the spread of false statements. The courts will aim to hear this within 24 hours of the victim's application.

"As false statements can go viral extremely quickly, the courts will be empowered to make relevant interim orders to provide victims with urgent relief," the Law Ministry said in a statement on the Bill.

It will also clarify that the courts can order Internet intermediaries like Facebook which have been used to spread falsehoods to issue corrections to viewers.

Besides posting the correction to those who accessed the false statement, the Internet intermediaries could also be ordered by the courts to distribute the correction to past viewers of it.

These will be in addition to the courts' existing powers to order the original publisher of the false statements and Internet intermediaries to intervene.

While the courts can order the original publisher to post a correction and stop publishing falsehoods, Internet intermediaries like Facebook can also be ordered to disable access to the false statements.

As of December last year, 11 applications have been filed under the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) to take down or correct false statements of fact, said the Law Ministry. The Act was enacted in 2014 and offers civil remedies for false statements of fact.

In 2017, the Court of Appeal ruled that the Government cannot invoke the anti-harassment law that allows persons to stop the publication of false statements against them in a case that hinged on the narrow legal question of whether the Government could be considered a "person" under POHA.

The amendments clarify that both individuals and entities - which include companies and organisations, but not government bodies - have access to remedies under POHA, said the Law Ministry.

Government bodies will have to turn to a draft law, which was also introduced in Parliament yesterday, to exercise measures similar to those in the amended POHA.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill is aimed at tackling the spread of fake news.

"In an infinite online landscape, entities are just as vulnerable as individuals where falsehoods are concerned," said the Law Ministry's statement on the Protection from Harassment (Amendment) Bill.

"A corporate entity's reputation can be ruined in days if falsehoods about the entity are allowed to go unchecked. The Bill provides recourse to entities when they are the victims of falsehoods."

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