“A proposed anti-harassment Bill that will be tabled in Parliament on Monday is likely to deter extreme forms of behaviour in cyberspace, such as the lynch mob mentality, but the jury is still out as to whether it can effectively enforced if passed” (‘Not Easy’ To Enforce Proposed Anti-Harassment Law, Mr. Amir Hussain).
I must be the only one who reckons that the proposed anti-harassment Bill that will be tabled in Parliament later – to curb cyberbullying and other extreme misbehaviour on the Internet – is an exercise in futility. Practically, it would be near-impossible for the authorities to trace sources, to identify and apprehend anonymous individuals who have broken the law. How do you pin down the originator? Consequently pragmatically, the supposed signal of deterrence will lose its effect, especially when a derogatory post goes viral on social media channels. And even if the perpetrators are eventually nabbed, the damage would have been done.
As criminal defence lawyer Josephus Tan told TODAY, “How much are we willing to spend to set up such a massive infrastructure … to monitor and track the various social media platforms on a 24/7 basis?” Furthermore there is greater uncertainty when one considers the varying degrees of harm and damage. Would my-feelings-were-hurt be considered a legitimate claim? How does one decide if a victim has been genuinely affected by comments?
And if there is truly a lynch mob, who will be held accountable? Everyone involved?
Some might contend that courts will develop norms to test the reasonableness of claims and to protect the victims, yet these norms can emerge and evolve collectively without legal intervention; in fact in past instances level-headed Singaporeans have rallied against the racist comments of the fictitious “Heather Chua”, and many were quick to condemn others who had launched unnecessary tirades against the family members of Briton Anton Casey. Associate Professor Eugene Tan (TODAY, Mar. 1) believes that “the law will catalyse the development and growth of appropriate online conduct”, though it would appear that such an informal code is in place: to be kind, respectful, and to hold truth and veracity sacred.
It may be a slow process, but the online community has been heading in the right direction for some time.
Moreover it is also a shame that the Bill has been tabled before a large-scale study on the purported effects of cyberbullying and cyber-addiction on teenagers from the Singapore Children’s Society, the Institute of Mental Health, and the National Institute of Education has concluded. One would assume that the perspectives of 3,000 young Singaporeans would give the government a better picture, and how educators have been managing such conflicts.
Will the Bill reduce the number of abusive and hateful netizens on the Internet? Marginally, perhaps. But all these perpetual discussions about round-the-clock surveillance, investigations and prosecution, as well as punitive and retributive measures have overshadowed the need for strong education and media literacy programmes in the long-term. Legislation at the moment is akin to a reactive Band-Aid. Even as we accept that hate and intolerance can never be eradicated anywhere, we can try to reduce their display sensibly.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.