Enforcement is key to doxxing laws, Latest Views News - The New Paper

Enforcement is key to doxxing laws

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Former TNP journalist, a doxxing victim, believes amendments will be deterrent only if authorities succeed in prosecuting doxxers

Eight years ago, I was a young journalist in The New Paper covering the political beat when I became a victim of doxxing.

Using my photos and contact number, online vigilantes posted a profile of me on several sex websites that falsely alleged I was a prostitute and also harassed me on my social media account.

With last week's introduction of amendments to the Protection from Harassment Act (Poha), doxxing is set to be outlawed. Doxxing refers to publishing identifiable information about a person to harass, cause violence or fear of violence to the person.

But, going by my personal experience, I wonder if the changes will be effective in nabbing and deterring perpetrators.

It was the lead up to the 2011 General Election. I had been involved in writing a story about an opposition party, which riled supporters of the party and of the opposition in general.

The day the article was published, I awoke to messages from friends and family members, urging me to log into my public Facebook account. There, I found hundreds of hateful messages, including an image of my profile picture superimposed on a dog, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong walking it.

On the third day after the article was published, I received a call asking if I could perform the "services" I was advertising online. Apparently, I was offering sexual services on online sex forums.

That day, netizens posted my mobile number online and boasted they were quickly closing in on me. Exposing my home address was their next mission.

As I was then living with my parents, I worried for their safety. The threats compelled me to go to the authorities.

I gave the police the profiles of online perpetrators, printouts of their comments and names of the sex websites as well as screen-shot evidence that I was being falsely profiled as a prostitute.

But beyond facilitating my report-making, the police told me nothing further could be done. They needed real names and contact numbers before they could proceed, they said.

My heart sank. Of course, I knew even before going to the police that online trolls hide in the shadows of the Internet by using fake social media accounts and masking IP addresses.

That is why it is heartening that the Government is trying to have our laws keep pace with technology.

Under the latest proposed changes to Poha, 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.

This development is in line with how other countries are attempting to tackle the challenge of doxxing.

Two years ago, Germany passed a law that compels social media platforms to remove offending material. But one gets the sense that governments are merely playing catch up.

And it does not help that the definition of doxxing can be problematic.

The Law Ministry has given some specific examples of what it considers doxxing. But in general, it said the courts will interpret the law and decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not a doxxing offence is being committed.

And while doxxing victims can file for an interim order at the new Protection from Harassment Courts and cases can have this order heard within 24 hours, the speed will be slowed down if the other party challenges the victim's order.

With these new courts, the processes and procedures for seeking redress need to be simple and made clear.

Finally, even if a website is identified and compelled by the courts to take down personal details, that does not stop the doxxers who continue to be untraceable.

Like a super fungus, these perpetrators have evolved and strengthened. They are deadly, infectious and still slipping through the cracks.

If they cannot be caught, then penalties are not an effective deterrent.

The proposed law seems sound in principle, but it must genuinely offer protection and justice to victims. If not, there will continue to be individuals like me who are exposed to unjust humiliation, while their perpetrators fire away toxic verbal salvos while hiding behind their keyboards.

Trolls must not have the last laugh.

Bryna Singh is a correspondent with The Straits Times.