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News Reports

Fixing the nasties

And so it comes…new harassment (or is it anti-harassment?) legislation is going to be introduced in Parliament on Monday. We’ve been alerted to this before, with statistics displayed on increased cyber-bullying and plenty of upset people lamenting attacks of terrible trolls.

You know, the bullies who attacked that much reviled expat Anton Casey and gave details of his family life so much so that he had to flee the country? The bullies who rampaged about road bullies caught on video and did a CSI on them and their loved ones?

Ooops! Wrong examples…

The legislation is really about protecting innocent people who become targets of others out to “get them’’, whether by fabricating information, making false accusations or generally making sure life gets difficult for their targets. We know of such things happening and might have become targets ourselves (or we might have indulged in the harassment too or at least spread the “joy’’ around by sharing such calumny.)  

Sometimes, the barbs fall off like water off a duck’s back. Sometimes, we will say that stick and stones will break our bones but words will never hurt us. We might even say that the harassment is simply part and parcel of the Internet culture and everyone should just develop a thick skin.

Thing is, not everyone is so hide-bound. And truths, pleasant and unpleasant, can hurt as well as falsehoods. If you’ve been defamed and have deep pockets, you can sue people. But you can’t stop others from infringing on your privacy and doing a tell-all online. Then there are the young people to think about, those who are subject to the online equivalent of the schoolyard bully and aren’t made of stern enough stuff (yet) to protect themselves or hit back.

So good law you say?

Yes, for those who need them. Seems they can apply to the courts to get a protection order – even an expedited one – to get offending stuff about them removed. Or they can get the courts to endorse their “right of reply’’, in terms of clarifying false statements made out to hurt them. It doesn’t seem much different from the way protection orders are issued for those who go to the Family court or under the Women’s Charter. Except that violation of a personal protection order is deadly serious and can lead to police action. The person who refuses to do online what the court ordered him to will be guilty of contempt of court, which could lead to a fine and jail.

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The law also deals with stalkers. You know, the sort of person who follows you around, offline and online, but doesn’t quite do anything outrightly offensive. In other words, a creepy person. Seems the current laws can’t quite deal with such people which is why stalking is now explicitly laid out in the new legislation.

Penalties you ask? Well someone who refuses to obey the court’s order will be in contempt. And that could be a jail or fine. If the offence is egregious, there are criminal sanctions as well it seems.

That’s a quick and dirty summary.

Doubtless, people will have a lot to say and you can bet that extreme views will also be heard.

Like, it’s too lenient….The G should really throw the book at harassers and stalkers, instead of making victims go to court to get an order.

Like, it’s too draconian…What if the think-skinned and public figures use it as a way to clamp down on rightful dissent?

And, something in the middle: How, in heavens’ name, are you going to anonymous cowards to obey since they are so difficult to pin down in the first place? And what if everything’s gone viral? Tell Facebook to ban them?

Here’s one hypothetical example: Someone posts something on a forum and it goes viral. It’s a terrible post that caused great distress to the intended target. The victim goes to court and says that satanicevil123 has been harassing him. He gets a court order and the forum removes satanicevil123’s post and satanicevil123 is warned about repeating his offending post. Then he surfaces as superangel123 – and attacks again. In the meantime, because his post is so saucy, it gets re-posted and shared. So the victim sends the order to every one of them? Or somehow the judge orders it posted in some place so more people can see? Frankly, I doubt if victims of harassment want even more people to know they are victims of harassment.

It’s going to be crazy if say, Anton Casey, gets a Protection Order and has to send it to a bazillion people bashing him. Or maybe “publishers’’ will get an order to remove everything to do with him? That would be stretching it a bit far methinks. The implementation details boggle the mind.

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But before implementation, a judgment must be made on whether the order should be granted or not. That is left to the courts. Thing is, there are plenty of shades of grey – what is dreadful harassment to one person might well be nothing if applied to another person. So the victim’s “feelings’’ and degree of sensitivity have to be taken into account? That’s tough. Imagine if an application for a court order is turned down  because the court thinks the request was “unreasonable’’ but the victim thinks its eminently reasonable. Some “norms’’ have to evolve as well.

Then again, better something in place than nothing at all, which is the case now. You can’t get the police to act on a perfectly polite stalker and you need to sue for defamation if you want something stopped online. Too much trouble. Singapore is behind the curve on this one. Other countries already have such protections in place.  

Anyway, it’s going to be tabled soon. It’s about fixing the nasties, and it’s in everyone’s interest to make sure that it is about that – and only about that.


Written By

An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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