Singapore’s netizens have a new legal weapon to defeat the “trolls” of the Internet after Parliament recently approved an anti-harassment law.
Under the new law, anti-social acts such as cyber harassment, bullying of children, sexual harassment in the workplace, and stalking are now deemed illegal. A person found guilty of unlawful stalking will get a fine of up to S$5,000 ($3922.00) or a jail term not exceeding 12 months. Repeat offenders may face a fine of up to S$10,000 and/or a jail term of not more than two years.
Harassment is already a crime in Singapore under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act but online harassment is not clearly defined. Hence, many welcomed the passage of the anti-harassment law since it would give more protection to ordinary citizens, including children who are using the Internet. The law also extended protection to public sector employees such as healthcare workers and railway personnel.
Legal experts noted that the new law gives victims of cyber bullying the option to avail of civil remedies. Victims may apply for Protection Orders requiring harassers to desist from causing further harm to them. The Protection Order also requires the harasser or a third party to remove the offending material which caused harassment.
A person wishing to correct wrongful online personal information can invoke Section 15 of the law to convince the court to order the correction of the publication.
Perhaps to avoid misinterpretations, the law provided explicit examples of harassment and stalking
X and Y are classmates. X posts a vulgar tirade against Y on a website accessible to all of their classmates. One of Y’s classmates shows the message on the website to Y, and Y is distressed. X is guilty of an offense.
Meanwhile, these acts are acts associated with stalking of X by Y:
(a) Y repeatedly sends emails to Y’s subordinate (X) with suggestive comments about X’s body.
(b) Y sends flowers to X daily even though X has asked Y to stop doing so.
(c) Y repeatedly circulates revealing photographs of a classmate (X) to other classmates.
Hri Kumar, a Member of Parliament, believes that the law rightly makes people accountable for the crimes they commit online: “If we agree that a person should be made accountable for causing harm to another by making hurtful statements and uttering falsehoods in the physical world, why should he obtain a free pass because he does it on-line, and anonymously?”
But he is worried that the measure might not be effectively implemented since there are no clear guidelines on how to ascertain the identities of anonymous offenders.
Another Member of Parliament, Pritam Singh, supports the measure. But he warned about how the provision against stalking can be used to undermine the critical work of journalists and bloggers: “I am concerned that the Bill may be subject to abuse especially by individuals who seek to use the law for illegitimate reasons like avoiding or strategically delaying public scrutiny which some journalists or bloggers may seek to pursue.”
He also reminded the government that the issue of school bullying is a complex problem which cannot be adequately resolved through legislation. He wanted policymakers to be more lenient to children.
“I do hope we can address the issue of bullying in schools outside the legal domain, with this Bill employed as a last resort on students who are at a stage in their life where mistakes are made and poor judgment is exercised, a reflection of youthful folly,” he said.
Surprisingly, MP Zaqy Mohammad of the ruling party declared his support for the measure on the condition that it won’t be used to suppress criticism: “I support this as long as it’s not a tool to be used in any manner to censor information and responsible views, alternative as they may be, on the Internet.”
Indeed, the law must be strictly implemented to end the harassment activities of bullies, trolls, and unlawful stalkers. It must not be used to harass government critics and those who are aggressively speaking on social and policy issues.