International Women’s Day

New initiative seeks to keep women safe from online dangers

Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Sim Ann said tackling online dangers should involve public education.
Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Sim Ann said tackling online dangers should involve public education. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Women and girls could start to think it is normal to receive lewd pictures or unwelcome advances online unless more is done to protect them, Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Sim Ann warned yesterday.

She said social norms that uphold females' safety are increasingly being challenged by factors like the anonymity of the Web.

These factors could possibly lead to more of them being subjected to exploitative behaviour, added Ms Sim, who announced a new initiative to tackle the issue under the Singapore Together Alliance for Action banner.

While Singapore has to date seen 18 such alliances formed in areas such as aiding economic recovery amid the Covid-19 pandemic and work-life harmony, Ms Sim said this is likely the first which is "so focused on online harms that are primarily targeted at women and girls".

The new alliance will be officially launched later this year."

Ms Sim's initial ideas on how to keep women safe include setting up an online repository where victims can seek help and understand tech companies' policies, and encouraging people to report inappropriate activities they see on the Internet.

To help shape the agenda, the Ministry of Communications and Information held engagement sessions with concerned stakeholders including parents, students and women's groups.

More than 60 women and men took part in the first two sessions last month and yesterday.

Ms Sim said the work involved will be extensive and will span several years, adding that three main areas of concern have been identified.

The first is the existence of websites that encourage girls or women to engage in vice. The second is non-consensual posting of images, videos and personal details.

Third is the unwelcome one-to-one interactions, ranging from sexual harassment to online grooming, especially through direct messaging on social media.

"Fundamentally, these online harms are driven by a view of women and girls which is exploitative in nature. In real life, we have laws that uphold women's safety. We have cultural norms as well that govern acceptable interactions between men and women," said Ms Sim.

But norms are being challenged on the Web, she said, perhaps because of the anonymity it offers. As a result, more females face behaviour that laws are meant to deter.

"So I feel very worried about the prospect that women and girls would start to think that it's normal to be on the receiving end of lewd pictures or unwelcome suggestive advances. Because then it's really a very short step away from women and girls having their real-life safety and security compromised."

Beyond legislation, tackling online dangers should involve public education, said Ms Sim.

Tech companies should also be part of the solution, she added.

Ms Clara Koh, Facebook's head of public policy for Singapore and Asean, who attended yesterday's dialogue, said the firm invested over US$3.7 billion (S$5 billion) in safety and security in 2019. It has also tripled its staff in the areas of safety and security since 2016.

In the last quarter of 2020, the company removed 28 million and 13.1 million pieces of adult nudity and sexual activity content on Facebook and Instagram, respectively.

Ms Sim said that while it may be tough for individuals to talk to tech companies, the Alliance for Action could help engage the firms in a more structured way.

"I would very strongly encourage the tech platforms to see Singapore as a place where very progressive policies for safeguarding the interests, well-being and safety of their users can be piloted, implemented and proven to work," she added.

Amelia Teng

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 09, 2021, with the headline New initiative seeks to keep women safe from online dangers. Subscribe