Opening Remarks by Minister for Home Affairs and Law Mr K Shanmugam at Online Harms Symposium 2023
25 Sep 2023 Posted in [Speeches]
Dean of SMU Law School, Professor Lee Pey Woan
My Parliamentary colleagues, SPS Rahayu Mahzam and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh
Ambassador Chan Heng Chee
Ladies and Gentlemen
- Good morning. Thank you all for joining this Symposium. You have heard the Dean explain how important this topic is.
- All our societies are empowered, in fact now completely dependent on technology.
- It has been a tremendous positive.
- Difficult now to think of a world “pre-tech”, as it was, though some of us straddle both worlds.
- At the same time, we are also trying to deal with some of the negative consequences. We have seen the negative consequences affect individuals and affect society as a whole – the very structure of society.
- When technology is used to carry out criminal activities, promote terrorism, undermine internal security, the State tries to deal with them, mainly through regulation and law enforcement.
- Singapore, like other countries, has been trying to deal with these, and recently, we passed two more major Bills, which allow the State to better regulate the online space.
First, the Online Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Act. This allows an order to be directed to social media platforms to take down some types of egregious content, like posts advocating suicide, self-harm, child sex exploitation, and terrorism.
Second, the Online Criminal Harms Act, which allows the Government to act more effectively against criminal online activities like scams and malicious cyber activities.
- The Penal Code was also amended, a few years ago, in 2019, to deal more effectively with technology-enabled sexual offences. It is always a catch-up because technology is always constantly evolving, and evolving at a much faster pace than regulation can keep up. Secondly, it is multinational, so you can have your laws within your country, but people do things from outside.
- But the focus at this Symposium is quite different.
- The focus here is not on the State dealing with these issues to protect society as a whole. It is on individuals – what harms do they face online; what rights should they have as individuals – not the State, but what rights do individuals have, to deal with the impact of these negative consequences, and how can we better empower and protect individuals.
II. MULTI-PRONGED EFFORTS TO ADDRESS ONLINE HARMS
- We took a step in this direction when we passed the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) in 2014.
- POHA protects individuals from a specific type of harm – harassment, including online harassment.
- Victims can go to Court – it was intended to be a fuss-free and quick process – and apply for remedies. For example, if threatening words are put up online, which cause harassment to the victim, the victim can apply under POHA for a protection order and for damages.
- Victims of false statements can also apply under POHA to stop those statements from being published, among other reliefs.
- And if certain thresholds are crossed, POHA also provides for criminal sanctions.
- In addition to POHA, the Government also promotes online safety in other ways.
- It is really a whole-of-society effort, starting with public education, which is extremely important. Our schools conduct Cyber Wellness education.
- We also engage stakeholders, including Tech Companies. For example, we supported TikTok to launch the Youth for Good initiative, which aims to make the online space safer for young people. It tries to do so by creating peer support systems and cyber-wellness content.
- There are also partnerships with industry and community groups.
- For example, in 2021, the Government partnered people and private sectors, to form the Sunlight Alliance for Action (AfA) to tackle online harms, especially those targeted at women and girls.
- Some members of the Sunlight AfA have since established a new NGO, SG Her Empowerment (SHE), which is an independent, non-profit organisation, which runs Singapore’s first one-stop support centre for victims of online harms, the SHECARES@SCWO.
- All these efforts are good, they are necessary but, they have to be backed up by having the right legal framework.
- I talked about POHA earlier – introduced in nearly 10 years ago.
- More recently, we amended POHA in 2019 to cover doxxing, to give victims more remedies, and streamline the processes for obtaining these remedies. But the experiences have still been mixed and we are still looking at it.
III. SINGAPOREANS’ EXPERIENCE WITH ONLINE HARMS
- So far, what we have done has helped to keep the online space somewhat safe.
- But the challenges keep growing because, as I said earlier, technology keeps evolving.
- And a recent slew of surveys show that individuals feel that they need much more help.
For example, in 2021, the National Youth Council conducted a poll of young people. Two-thirds (67%) said that they had experienced an online harm.
In 2022, the Sunlight AfA did another survey. It found that almost 1 in 2 respondents (47%) above the age of 15 had personally experienced online harms. And only 66% said that they felt safe online. The contrast for me, as the Home Affairs Minister, is that 92% of Singaporeans, including women, said that they feel safe walking alone at night in Singapore. So paradoxically, in the physical space in Singapore, 92% feel safe, but only 66% feel safe online, and of that, 1 in 2 have faced harassment or online harm in some way. So we have done a very good job in the physical space, but we are a bit behind the curve in the online space.
Microsoft also did a global survey on online safety recently. It found that Singapore is one of the top five countries where individuals are most likely to experience an online risk.
And, in the last few days, you may have seen reports of a new survey done by SHE. Over 1,000 Singaporeans above the age of 15 took part. Let me refer to some of the key findings. I think one of the panel sessions will explore this in detail. I would like to acknowledge the presence of Stefanie Yuen-Thio, who helped a lot in that and I am sure she and her team will go into it.
First, many reported having some personal experience or knowledge of online harms. 38% said that they have personally experienced online harms. 47% said that they personally know of others who have faced online harms. A majority (3 in 5) fell into one or both categories. So, either they have experienced it or they know someone who have experienced it.
Second, 52% of those between the ages of 15 and 24 said that they had personally experienced online harms. Young women naturally are especially vulnerable to gender-based harms. For example, they are almost twice as likely (22%) to experience sexual harassment compared to young men (12%).
Third, online harms can involve a range of conduct. Quite a few of these probably are not clearly covered by POHA today. That can leave victims vulnerable, even if they are minded to take action – many are not minded to take action, even when you provide a POHA avenue. So, they feel vulnerable, with little recourse to protect themselves. I will come back to this point later. For now, the slide shows you some of the common types of online harms:
- Sexual Harassment
- Impersonation or Identity Theft
- Defamation or Falsehoods
- Image-Based Sexual Abuse
Most of these online harms were personally experienced by at least 10% of respondents.
Fourth, online harms can have a very serious impact. For some, the impact can be quite severe, especially for their mental and emotional well-being. 18% said that they have feared for their own safety, or that of others. 15% said that they have suffered from mental health issues, like depression. A number (6%) have attempted self-harm or suicide. Online harms seem to also lead people to withdraw from public discourse.
3 in 4 (76%) said they are not comfortable sharing their personal views online on potentially controversial topics. So, when we advocate for free online space, the free speech rights of 76% are affected when you do not provide a safe environment. So, it is the reverse, because they get shouted down. Actually, in the way that it is evolving, free speech has been seriously affected. Many fear that others will target them, cause harm to those who know them, or harm them in real life. This is bad for society.
IV. DESIRED REMEDIES FOR ONLINE HARMS
- The survey findings are quite sobering. It is a reality check, particularly as we are one of the top five societies in the world in Internet penetration.
- You really cannot have generations of young people growing up with these issues, with mental health, among other things, affected. I think societies all around the world, including us, are behind the curve in dealing with this. Because young people have their self-confidence shattered, traumatised, victimised, bullied, and you have generations growing up with that.
- So, what should we do?
- Most individuals, when surveyed, said what they say they want are practical solutions. Some want for the harmful online content to be taken down quickly, without having to spend too much time and energy.
- That seems to be the top priority – stop the harm first. Then, if possible, go for other remedies. This is entirely understandable – logical.
- The findings by SHE reflect this desire and need.
Around 9 in 10 said that the swift and permanent removal of the harmful online content would be useful or very useful.
Around 7 in 10 said the same about other remedies like getting monetary compensation, or a public correction or apology.
- For some time now, we have believed that there needs to be further and better laws to empower victims of online harms to take action and protect themselves. But most people are not prepared, or able, to spend a lot of money, or wait for a long time. So, the real issue is how can we deal with technology in a way that empowers victims to take care of themselves in a safe and effective way that is also not so costly. And if you look around, we have experts from around the world who will talk about a variety of problems, including this.
- Let me take a common example – Image-Based Sexual Abuse. A person’s intimate images are put up online, without consent. The perpetrator is unknown. The victim today can make a Police report. But investigations will take time. There may be other options. But lawyers here will know there are legal uncertainties, and going to court will involve time and money.
- Meanwhile, the images are often widely circulated. Damage is already done to the victim – affecting mental health; reputation; relationships. Many things will suffer. And even after the perpetrator is found, and brought to justice, the images could still be online.
- You can imagine other scenarios. And this is before considering artificial intelligence (AI).
- Some of you may have read a BBC article yesterday. In a small Spanish town, some schoolgirls had their social media profiles and photos taken, and AI had been used to doctor them – suspected to have been done by some schoolboys. They put up nude photos of these young girls. The faces are real, whereas the figures are AI generated. And these nude photos are widely circulated. So, you can imagine the impact on the young schoolgirls – some are angry, some are withdrawn, some are deeply shocked, some are traumatised, embarrassed, and ashamed. This can also easily happen to men and boys too.
- This raises questions:
- Are we doing enough to protect victims of online harms?
- Should we change our laws?
- How can we empower victims?
- What remedies are appropriate?
- These are some of the issues which we hope to explore at this Symposium.
- And I want to thank the SMU Law School for partnering the Ministry of Law to organise this event.
- Serious experts from around the world are taking part.
- They include:
- Ms Julie Inman Grant: Australia’s e-Safety Commissioner. She heads the world’s first government regulatory agency committed to online safety.
- Mr Damian Collins: A UK Member of Parliament. He is also the former Chair of the Joint Parliamentary Committee, which studied the Online Safety Bill that was just passed into law in the UK last week.
- Ms Frances Haugen: who is well-known to people of the Internet space, and advocates for accountability and transparency in social media.
- From Singapore, we have Supreme Court judges – Justice Philip Jeyaretnam and Judicial Commissioner Goh Yihan.
- Leading researchers and academics include:
- Prof David Ardia
- Prof Danielle Citron
- Prof Lim Sun Sun
- Prof Clare McGlynn
- Dr Carol Soon
- Dr Chew Han Ei
- Moderators for the panel discussions include Ambassador Chan Heng Chee, as well as faculty of SMU Law School.
- This promises to be a very interesting Symposium, and I thank you again for your participation.
- I hope you have a fruitful Symposium.
Last updated on 25 September 2023