A Case for Curtailing Free Speech Online
By Wu Wenyu
The Ministry of Home Affairs recently announced that it would be considering introducing laws to combat cyber bullying and other forms of Internet harassment – including online defamation – so as to afford better protection to victims of non-criminal wrongdoing in cyberspace. Given the uncertainties often associated with internet-related legislation, one wonders what the exact scope of such laws would be like if they were to be implemented.
However, one thing is for sure – not every Internet user is going to be happy with the government’s new initiative. After all, one would undoubtedly associate protective laws relating to defamation with potential room for unwanted censorship. After the 2011 General Elections, the Internet has gained a new foothold in Singaporean civic society. Many see it as a source of empowerment and a guardian of democracy. Singaporeans have actively engaged themselves in political expression online since, using it as a means to place pressure on the government with regard to various political and social issues such as transport and housing. To many who see Singapore as a country with limited freedom of speech, the Internet has become the place where an individual’s right protected under Article 14 of the Singapore Constitution can be exercised to its fullest.
The explosion of diversity and sheer volume of views that have been expressed online is indeed a positive sign for any democracy. Yet irrational remarks resulting in public humiliation of an individual are not uncommon. The extent to which some Internet users would go to in order to “punish” someone for articulating a controversial viewpoint which they perceive as “wrong” can be disturbing. In situations where vindictive speech has become the norm, the government’s efforts in combating online violence and harassment are welcomed.
An extreme example of online harassment is China’s very own human flesh search engine (renrou sousuo). The human flesh search engine has been used by countless Chinese netizens in their collective efforts to hunt down anonymous Internet users in cases ranging from love triangles to political outrage to cold-case murders. While the search engine has seen its fair bit of success in tracking down criminals, it has also caused disturbance to many others. In April 2008, Grace Wang, a Chinese student at Duke University in America, wrote “Free Tibet” on a classmate’s back with the photo being subsequently uploaded online. Chinese netizens then reacted violently. Ms Wang’s Chinese name, her identification number and contact details were tracked down using the search engine, and posted across the Internet. Not only did she receive hate mails threatening to “chop her into a thousand pieces” if she ever returned to China, her parents were also forced to go into hiding after their address was published online. Cases like this have become a common phenomenon. Vigilante justice is exercised as netizens simply take matters into their own hands to persecute an individual.
Back here, cases resembling those in China are not unheard of. At the National Day Parade 2011, Member of Parliament Penny Low was caught on TV using her mobile phone during the National Anthem. Pictures of this footage went viral online and she subsequently apologised on Facebook. Gay Chao Hui, using her wife’s Facebook account, commented on the post and scolded Singaporeans for being morons. Provoked by the comment, Internet users conducted searches on Mr. Gay. Calling themselves the “CSI”, they exposed his full particulars online, including his mobile number, his educational background and even the age of his child. Fortunately, the matter did not turn out to be as ugly as that in China. Yet one cannot help but shudder at the thought that the next ‘Grace Wang’ may well be our very own neighbour next door.
In many of these cases, the netizens may indeed have a reason to track down the “culprit’s” identity, especially those who simply took advantage of the online anonymity. However, whether they should be legally entitled to publish all particulars of these ‘culprits’ online and subject them to the scrutiny of the public is a different question. For a start, some of these individuals who were targeted had only committed a moral wrong, or simply expressed an opinion that was contrary to the mainstream view. Even if they have committed an offence, it is questionable whether “flaming” them, publishing their personal particulars online and sending them hate mails are legitimate ways to punish them for their acts. It almost seems as if individuals like them are afforded less protection to their privacy and personal details than accused persons who are prosecuted in court. In the latter situation, personal details relating to the accused and his or her family are protected where necessary or when ordered by the Courts. Furthermore, sentences meted out to a criminal have always been based on the rule of proportionality. When online speech crosses the line and assumes the role of the “CSI” or “Robin Hood”, it translates into an Internet mob fighting for street justice.
In view of these cases and the potential harm that can arise out of the usage of Internet, it is hard to see why legislation should not step in to ensure that there are at least some personal remedies available for these aggrieved individuals. Though freedom of speech is protected under Art 14, curtailment of this right can be made if it is “necessary and expedient in the interest of public order or morality” (Art 14(2)(b)). In the cases discussed above, where the right of privacy of an individual and his safety are threatened by constant harassment, only by imposing restrictions can the situation be controlled. While right of privacy is not a constitutional right in Singapore, it is at least in the interest of public morality to afford it some protection or recognition, such that no one is able to take matters into their own hands to track down the victim and take private action against him.
The Internet has indeed become a very convenient tool for Singaporeans to engage in political discussions and the democratic process. But if every Grace Wang were to be treated in the same manner, the chilling effect on speech would be unfathomable. Without legal protection, it would take great courage to speak freely despite the constant threat of public humiliation. Undeniably, there will always be some individuals whom we view as undeserving of legal protection. However, creating a civil action against cyber harassment does not necessarily equate to a state endorsement of his or her actions. Rather, it is a recognition of the need to provide and support the creation of a civil online environment for civic discourse and discussion.