With the increased use of social media and our mobile phones, it is unsurprising that we often get the latest news through the Internet. While it is incredibly convenient and very far-reaching in a short amount of time, we often hear that it is a double-edged sword, for the very same reasons. I myself am guilty of always being online, trying to catch the newest fight, or “drama” that occurred on the streets.
Some prime examples include the famous “Auntie vs Ah Lian” Battle in the MRT, or the recent spate of videos about non-compliant and non-mask wearing members of the public, which flouts the COVID-19 regulations.
When things happen to us – both good news and inconveniences, the urge to post it to our social media platforms is therefore so real, and so strong. But how do we strike a balance between telling our story, against the protection of someone else’s identity and privacy? When we cross a line, that is where doxxing laws come into play.
Doxxing is a word that has increased in relevance over the recent years, together with increased connectivity across the globe, and the continued advancement of technology. In fact, it is so new and recent, that the laws that make doxxing illegal was only passed as recently as in January 2020.
Doxxing is used to describe the act of “publish(ing) the private personal information of another person without the consent of that individual”. In Singapore law, it occurs when there is the publication of the identity information of someone, or people related to them to harass, threaten or to facilitate violence against them.
What then qualifies as identity information? And thus, what counts as doxxing?
According to section 2 Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) (“the Act”), one’s “identity information” refers to any information that “identifies, or purports to identify an individual”, be it “on its own or with other information”. A non-exhaustive list of examples include:
- Name, residential address, contact numbers, date of birth, NRIC number
- Photographs or video recordings
- Information about someone’s family, employment, or education
In the Act, there are 3 different categories of offences that fall under the umbrella term of “doxxing” – while as mentioned, they are all concerned with the publication of personal and identity information, they differ as to what is its effect.
Types of doxxing offences under POHA:
- Under section 3 of the Act, a person will be guilty of an offence if they publish someone else’s personal information with the intention to cause harassment, alarm, or distress.
- Under section 5, a person will be guilty of an offence if they publish someone else’s personal information with the “intent to” cause the latter to believe that unlawful violence would be used against them, or those around them. It even includes “knowing or having cause to believe” that the victim believes that unlawful violence is likely to be used against them, or someone around them.
- Also under section 5, a person will be guilty of an offence if they publish someone else’s personal information with the “intent to” – or “knowing, or having cause to believe” – that it is likely to facilitate the use of unlawful violence against them or someone around them.
For the offences under section 3, the publisher must have intended the “harassment, alarm or distress” caused for them to be found guilty. An example of this, adapted from the illustration in the Act itself, is if person A launches a vulgar attack and rants against person B on a website accessible to those around them, and person B is distressed upon seeing the post.
It should be noted that if family members or colleagues are on the receiving end of the harassment, alarm or distress, person A could still be guilty of an offence, even though it was not their personal information that was published, according to illustration (b) of section 3.
However, under section 5 of the Act, a person can be found guilty of either the offence of causing the fear of the use of unlawful violence or of facilitating the use of unlawful violence even if they did not have the intention to cause the person (the victim) to fear the use of violence.
It, therefore, flows naturally that they can be found guilty, even if they did not intend to facilitate violence against the other party. Just the knowledge or the fact that they ought to have known that the above outcome was likely is sufficient to find them guilty. The examples of what might fall within this section is more intuitive.
For example, from the illustrations alone, it is clear that there has to be a threat, or abusive remarks, coupled with the person’s personal information as defined in section 2.
Nevertheless, it bears noting that for the offence relating to the fear of violence – in section 5(1)(a)(i) and section 5(1A)(a)(i), and their corresponding sections 5(1)(b)(i) and 5(1A)(b)(i) – have to be directed to the person who was doxxed for the publisher to be found guilty.
Doxxing brings with it serious consequences, as part of the general effort to ensure safety and to a certain degree, privacy, with the rapid rise of the Internet.
- Under to the Act, those convicted under section 3 can be fined up to $5,000 or jailed up to 6 months, or both.
- Those convicted under section 5 can be fined up to $5,000, jailed up to 12 months, or both.
That being said, there are possible defences to such cases. In section 4(3) and section 5(3), it is stated that a possible defence is if (1) the Accused had no reason to believe that the words or behaviour used would be “heard, seen or otherwise perceived” by the victim, or if (2) the Accused conduct was reasonable.
Yet, I believe it is better to err on the side of caution. If people offend us in public, or we get into a skirmish be it in person or online – let’s not be quick to anger; and immediately whip our phones out to type a rant, or to video and post the situation online.
Instead, let’s build a caring and loving society, one that seeks to educate instead of “cancel”; one that nudges for accountability without endangering those around us. Connectivity is a good thing – it is nice to be accessible and to reach others instantaneously, but if it is misused and left unregulated, it can be very damaging to the community, after all.