Parliament: New agency needed to keep online space safe, says Minister of State Tan Kiat How

The Government should set up a new agency responsible for preventing online harm, said Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office Tan Kiat How on Sept 3, 2020. PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

SINGAPORE - As the pace of digitalisation picks up, there must also be a concerted push across society to combat the negative effects of the digital revolution, Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office Tan Kiat How said on Thursday (Sept 3).

To coordinate this national effort, the Government should set up a new agency responsible for preventing online harm like cyber scams, while bringing together community partners and experts to contend with this complex problem.

At the same time, firms in the digital sector should prioritise the security of customer information, and be proactive in detecting bad actors, said Mr Tan, who is also Minister of State for National Development.

Mr Tan noted in Parliament that no one ministry is today responsible for this issue, with different agencies dealing with aspects like digital literacy, mental well-being and support for victims.

"We do not fully understand the shape of the elephant, much less tame the beast," Mr Tan, previously the chief executive of the Infocomm Media Development Authority, said at the debate on the President's Address.

"This approach must change, so that we can adapt to the growing complexity of the problem."

Working with industry representatives and partners like mental health professionals, Singapore will be able to deal with the matter holistically and stay on top of the issue instead of playing catch up as it often does now due to the fast pace of change, Mr Tan said.

Partners in the community also have a role to play to help map the social and psychological dynamics of the online space, the impact on vulnerable groups and the support they may need, and best practices on how students can learn about these topics, he added.

This new agency should also be empowered to make recommendations on how to prevent online harm from befalling potential victims and provide timely help, he said, even proposing changes to the law to do so.

He shared with the House various anecdotes of people who have fallen prey to bad actors online, including an elderly woman who was scammed of more than $10,000 and a teenager who was pressured by a predator to send nude photos.

The Government cannot act alone in preventing such cases from happening, and Mr Tan called on companies to play their part by being more thoughtful in their products and services and building in safety features from the outset, just like how cars and consumer appliances have to meet standards before being sold.

Telcos should also maintain a common database of blacklisted numbers and block incoming calls from these numbers, adding that these functions should be made accessible to all seniors, who are prime targets for scams.

Social media platforms likewise need to take initiative to detect and resolve bad behaviour early, before harm is done, said Mr Tan.

He acknowledged that platforms such as Instagram and Twitter have existing functions for reporting content, comments or accounts, but said they can work with the Government to better combat cyber bullying and cyber grooming.

Each Singaporean can also contribute in helping one another to not just access, but navigate cyberspace safely.

Mr Tan suggested a new national movement that could galvanise the efforts of passionate individuals and groups to promote a culture of inclusiveness, respect and safety online.

Part of this effort will be to create an environment to discuss these issues in a supportive, non-stigmatising way that provides a safe space for victims to come forward, said Mr Tan.

"Singaporeans are proud that we have one of the safest streets in the world - we let our children and loved ones walk freely around the neighbourhood, and we trust they have pleasant interactions," said Mr Tan.

"Likewise, we must also strive to build a safe and kind online space - one marked with care and respect, where everyone, including our children and our seniors, can interact freely without constantly looking over their shoulders for predators."

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