Hard on victims despite laws to punish online vigilantes

While there are laws in place, enforcing them on keyboard warriors may be an uphill task, observers told The Sunday Times.
While there are laws in place, enforcing them on keyboard warriors may be an uphill task, observers told The Sunday Times.PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

There is little comfort for victims who are targeted by online vigilantes, it seems.

While there are laws in place, enforcing them on keyboard warriors may be an uphill task, observers told The Sunday Times.

Lawyers here said there is some recourse for victims, including turning to the Protection from Harassment Act if the vigilantism borders on harassment.

Those who are incorrectly identified as wrongdoers by online vigilantes also have grounds to seek recourse for defamation and retraction.

Singapore Management University (SMU) law don Eugene Tan said the Act, which can be used against keyboard warriors if their vigilante work manifests itself as threatening behaviour, is probably the best approach, but the challenge is always trying to identify the culprits.

Enforcement of the various laws may not be clear-cut.

While there are measures in place, the nature of the online realm makes it tough for victims - it's not easy to stop being associated with an incident.

 
 

For one thing, "the anonymity of much behaviour online frequently makes prosecution unrealistic", said National University of Singapore law dean Simon Chesterman.

It may also be difficult to put up an order against many anonymous individuals under the Act, said Ms Gloria James, head lawyer at Gloria James-Civetta & Co.

However, some lawyers believe that there are ways around this.

Lawyer Lionel Tan, who specialises in social media at law firm Rajah & Tann, said a possible course of action for victims "is to identify the most egregious online abuser and to file a claim against the abuser for defamation".

"This may create a deterrent effect that will discourage further abuse by other netizens."

Mr Tan said it is also possible to file legal action and seek the court's assistance to compel the Internet service provider to disclose an anonymous abuser's identity.

Observers said that while there are measures in place, the nature of the online realm makes it tough for victims - it's not easy to stop being associated with an incident.

Those identified wrongly still turn up in search results on past spats.

SMU associate professor Warren Chik said those wrongly accused can request the information to be taken down from Web hosting sites, "but this may not deal with the problem comprehensively as this information can be replicated".

Lawyers pointed to making a police report as the best option for now. In response to queries, the police advised victims of online harassment to not respond to harassing SMSes or phone calls, and to lodge a report with them.

Mr Satwant Singh of Satwant & Associates said what people post online can return to haunt them.

"The Internet can be a bane or a boon, and there is no running away from it," he added. "What is important is that we should not be too quick at the keyboard."

Calvin Yang

• Additional reporting by Tan Shu Yan, Ervin Tan and Gracia Lee

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 22, 2018, with the headline 'Hard on victims despite laws to punish vigilantes'. Print Edition | Subscribe