Bill 'unlikely to wipe out online harassment'

SINGAPORE - Theproposed expansion of anti-harassment laws will give courts more teeth to act against the most serious online threats, but lawyers have warned that rogue behaviour online is unlikely to be eradicated.

Under the Protection from Harassment Bill, which will be tabled in Parliament next Monday, a victim who can prove that there are "false facts" alleged against him online can ask the court to direct the harasser or website owner to notify other readers about the untruths.

The court can also give a protection order requiring the harasser - even if he posts anonymously - to remove the offending material, including that on websites hosted overseas.

What gives the proposed laws more muscle is that if the harasser does not comply with the protection order, he could face a fine and go to jail.

"It's a step in the right direction," said lawyer and MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC Christopher de Souza.

"When we were debating the Penal Code in 2007, we were already aware of how the Internet was being used to manipulate the vulnerable.

"This is an extension of that realisation, and I support it. The prevalence of online bullying needs to be dealt with head-on."

Said law professor and Media Literacy Council chairman Tan Cheng Han: "Online harassment can be just as bad (as real-world harassment), because it can both spread and induce others to gang up against the victim... It is its wide reach that gives it its particular sting."

But the kind of mob mentality that besieged road bully Quek Zhen Hao and the vet who put down a healthy puppy named Tammy will probably not go away, said Professor Tan.

Both of them had to endure insults on their Facebook pages, while self-styled vigilantes plastered their personal addresses and photographs on online forums in a process sometimes dubbed "CSI", after the TV series Crime Scene Investigation.

"I don't think all online 'CSI work' will stop because some of it will be equivalent to whistle-blowing and unlikely to amount to harassment," said Prof Tan.

He added: "In other cases, it may be difficult to prove that what was put up was intended to disturb, annoy or upset the subject, as the person posting the information may claim that there is a public interest objective in flagging bad behaviour."

There is also the issue of enforceability, said social media lawyer Lionel Tan, of law firm Rajah & Tann. "It's impossible to go through all 1,000 people if they spam someone's wall on a one-off basis," he said.

"Only those who continually barrage the victim or make threats to his physical well-being will be taken to task, and perhaps the ringleader, if he can be proven to have instigated everyone else."

Lawyers also said that it will remain to be seen how cyberbullying involving children will be handled in a court of law.

This is because there are questions over how the law can take minors to task. According to a poll conducted by local cyberwellness firm Kingmaker Consultancy last year, a third of 1,800 students aged 13 to 14 said they had been targets of cyberbullying.

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