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Online shaming of those flouting Covid-19 circuit breaker rules could amount to doxxing, say lawyers

SINGAPORE — With measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 progressively being tightened over the past few weeks, some people are taking to social media to “shame” others for not complying with the rules.

Online shaming of those flouting Covid-19 circuit breaker rules could amount to doxxing, say lawyers

Those who post videos, photographs of rule-breakers “instead of actually doing anything constructive” risk coming across as intending to harass others, said lawyers.

SINGAPORE — With measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 progressively being tightened over the past few weeks, some people are taking to social media to shame others for not complying with the rules.

But they themselves could be breaking newly-minted laws against doxxing, cautioned several criminal lawyers whom TODAY spoke to.

Doxxing is the act of publishing an individual’s personal information, such as photographs and contact details, with a view of harassing that person.

Governed by the Protection from Harassment Act (Poha), the rule came into force on Jan 1 this year after a slew of changes to the Act were passed in Parliament last year. 

Facebook groups dedicated to calling out such flouters have popped up recently, with the largest one — SG Covidiots — comprising more than 23,000 members so far.

Doxxing was in the spotlight late last year after netizens dug up personal information of a condominium resident who was filmed abusing a security guard in a viral video. 

However, no one has been prosecuted for doxxing-specific offences so far, said a spokesperson from the Attorney-General’s Chambers in response to TODAY’s queries.

FINE LINE BETWEEN RAISING AWARENESS AND SHAMING

Lawyers said that while online vigilantes are keen to spread social awareness, they are likely unaware of the consequences of their actions especially if they encourage others online to teach these rule-breakers a lesson.

A fine line exists between raising social awareness and online shaming and some videos that have gone viral recently could constitute doxxing, they said.  

Mr Adrian Wee, director of law firm Characterist, said that online shaming has “become commonplace” and those who do so, “instead of actually doing anything constructive”, risk coming across as intending to harass others.

Whether someone doxxes others depends on their intention, what they say in the video they took or what information they post online.

Under Sections 3 and 5 of Poha, accused persons must have intended to cause harassment, alarm or distress, or had reasonable grounds to believe that publication would facilitate or cause unlawful violence against the victim or others.

Lawyer Cory Wong from Invictus Law Corporation elaborated: “If my intention is to alert the authorities and to advise others to steer clear of such a potential contact of Covid-19, I am unlikely to have committed doxxing. But if my intention is to shame and to curse for just desserts to befall the person, then this may become doxxing already.”

The lawyers raised some examples of potential doxxing that they had seen online.

Mr Ashwin Ganapathy from IRB Law recalled a viral video of a couple in exercise gear who were not wearing face masks. The person filming them followed them for some distance, demanding that they wear face masks.

“The video taker at one point in time even shouted at the couple. Subsequently, the video was posted. As the faces of the couple were clearly visible in the video, this would fall within the definition of ‘identity information’,” he said. 

Veteran lawyer Gino Hardial Singh, founder of Abbots Chambers LLC, highlighted a video circulating on social media of an allegedly drunk man who had torn down tape cordoning off a playground.

As the man’s face was clearly visible, it could constitute doxxing, Mr Singh said.

In some instances, individuals posting photographs or videos may not realise that there was still identifiable information even if faces are obscured. 

 “A photograph of the person might also contain personal details that the publisher may not have been aware of, such as a unit number or licence plate number in the background,” Mr Wee added.

NO GOOD REASON TO SHAME OTHERS ONLINE

Mr Joel Ng from Quahe Woo & Palmer said that doxxing laws were enacted “precisely to counteract this sort of mob mentality”. 

Things could potentially escalate as well if those shamed are wrongly identified by the public, he added.

Those focusing on the perceived wrongdoing of others could want to take action but “two wrongs do not make a right”, said Mr Chua Hock Lu of Kalidass Law Corporation, who noted that alleged victims of doxxing can also file civil suits under Poha.

Mr Ganapathy said in most situations, it was hard to “discern any good reason for uploading such videos or photographs”. 

“If the aim is for the alleged violator to be investigated, then the video taker should simply present the video to the police. Vigilantism undermines the rule of law and serves no legitimate purpose,” he said.

Lawyers advised individuals to report such incidents to the authorities instead such as the police or through the OneService mobile application which now allows people to report cases where safe distancing is not being practised.

This information will help the relevant agencies to pinpoint “hotspots” and improve enforcement and patrolling there, said the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources on its website.

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Covid-19 coronavirus circuit breaker doxxing

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