Parliament: Online vigilantes who publish others' details could face jail

The proposed introduction of a new offence criminalises the act of "doxxing" - publishing identifiable information about a person to harass, cause violence or fear of violence to the person.
The proposed introduction of a new offence criminalises the act of "doxxing" - publishing identifiable information about a person to harass, cause violence or fear of violence to the person.PHOTO: ST FILE

They may also be fined under proposed introduction of new offence which criminalises act known as 'doxxing'

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."


Examples of doxxing provided by Law Ministry

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.

Correction note: This article has been edited for clarity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2019, with the headline 'Online vigilantes who publish others' details could face jail'. Print Edition | Subscribe