Shine a light on dark online spaces for women and girls: Sim Ann

Social norms that uphold females' safety are increasingly being challenged by factors like the anonymity of the Web. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - 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 has warned.

Announcing on Monday (March 8) a new initiative to tackle the issue, she said that social norms that uphold females' safety are increasingly being challenged by factors like the anonymity of the Web, possibly leading to more of them being subjected to exploitative behaviour.

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

Ms Sim is leading a national conversation with the hope of shining a spotlight on some of the darker corners of cyberspace for females.

The new initiative - the Singapore Together Alliance for Action - will look at ways to keep women and girls safe online. It will be officially launched later this year.

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

More than 60 women and men took part in the first two engagement sessions held last month and on Monday. More sessions will be held later.

Speaking to the media after Monday's session, Ms Sim said the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) has been tracking the topic of online dangers for women and girls, and has been in touch with concerned stakeholders.

They include representatives of tech companies, and parenting, student and women's groups.

"We were able to invite quite a number of men who also have deep concerns about this particular issue and they want to know how they can support women and girls," she said.

Participants called for public education on the issue and resources to support victims of online harm, she added.

In a statement on Monday, MCI said the alliance supports the recently launched Digital for Life movement - to help Singaporeans have the necessary digital tools and skills - and the wider ongoing conversations on women's development.

Said Ms Sim: "We launched the Digital for Life movement to bring together resources and ingenuity to help everyone in our society go digital.

"As more embrace digitalisation and reap the benefits of doing so, the issue of online harms - as we live, work and play more online - cannot go unaddressed.

"It is a difficult topic as we delve into issues, including the online grooming of young girls and the image-based sexual abuse of women online."

Speaking to The Straits Times, she said the work involved will be extensive, and span several years.

She identified three main areas of concern, based on discussions with the public.

The first is the existence of websites that encourage young girls or women to engage in vice.

The second is non-consensual posting of images, videos and personal details.

Third, 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 at 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," she added.

The recent amendments to the law to strengthen protection for victims of sexual and hurt offences are an important move, said Ms Sim, but tackling online dangers should also involve public education.

Tech companies could provide information to younger users about their policies against inappropriate speech or contact, Ms Sim said.

"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.

She acknowledged that it may be tough for individuals to have a conversation with tech companies, which is why the alliance for action could help to engage the firms in a more structured way.

Representatives from the likes of Facebook and Google had attended the initial dialogues.

Ms Clara Koh, Facebook's head of public policy for Singapore and Asean, who attended Monday'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 the sessions will also involve segments of society such as women's groups, youth and those in professions like law and counselling.

Parents are another key group she wants to reach out to.

"As a society, I feel we are more ready to talk about it," she said.

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