Technology has many advantages and provides new ways to learn, communicate, share information, and connect with friends and family. However, it is not without risks. More and more people find themselves victims of online embarrassment and harassment.
In recent years, the Singapore legislator felt it appropriate to enhance the protection for victims against violating their privacy and online harassment. A new offence, called “doxxing”, was created by amendments to the Protection from Harassment Act 2014 (POHA). It came into effect on 1 January 2020. The aim is to enhance protection against people who post other people’s private information to embarrass or harass them.
What exactly is “doxxing”?
The POHA does not specifically use the term “doxxing”. The term originated as slang for “dropping documents”. In general, doxxing refers to revealing and circulating personal information about someone to the public without the person’s permission.
Whilst the term pre-dates the internet, it has now been expanded to refer to the publication of a person’s personal information with the intention to harass, threaten, or facilitate violence against the person. A person can commit doxxing online and offline.
What constitutes personal information for the crime of “doxxing”?
In the context of the POHA, personal information means information that can be used to identify a person.
Identifying information is defined as:
Any information that, whether on its own or with other information, identifies or purports to identify an individual, including (but not limited to) any of the following:
- the individual’s name;
- residential address;
- email address;
- telephone number;
- date of birth;
- national registration identity card number;
- passport number;
- signature (whether handwritten or electronic); or
It includes any photograph or video recording of the individual and any information about the individual’s family, employment, or education.
What “doxxing” offences were created by the amendments to the POHA?
The amendments created three types of doxxing offences for publishing identifying information.
Publishing identifying information to cause alarm, distress, or harassment
Section 3(1)(c) – Publishing identifying information of the target person with the intention to cause harassment, alarm, or distress to that person. And as a result, cause that person or any other person harassment, alarm, or distress.
The POHA provides illustrations to explain this offence. An example would be where X and Y were in a relationship. When the relationship ends, X writes a post on Facebook alleging that Y is sexually promiscuous. He then proceeds to post a photograph of Y and includes her personal phone number. X’s intention is to cause Y harassment by facilitating others to identify and contact Y. X’s action resulted in Y being harassed by phone calls and messages asking for sexual favours. X would be guilty of the offence of “doxxing” as defined in sec 3(1)(c).
If Y’s family is distressed or alarmed, or harassed because of X’s conduct, X will also be guilty.
Publishing identifying information to cause fear of violence
Section 5(1A) – Publishing identifying information of a person, or a person related to that person:
- with the intent to cause the victim to believe that unlawful violence will be used against the victim or any other person; or
- knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that it is likely to cause the victim to believe that unlawful violence will be used against the victim or another person.
To illustrate. A posts on Facebook that B must be “put in his place and taught a lesson”. A includes a photo of B and his address. A adds, “Who is coming to beat him up?” A clearly has the intention to cause B to believe that violence will be used against B.
It is highly unlikely in today’s technological society, but let’s say A knows that B will never see or become aware of the post. Is A still guilty of doxxing under sec 5(1A)? No, A cannot be guilty since he did not have the intention to cause B to fear violence against B.
Publishing identifying information to facilitate the use of violence
Section 5(1A) further stipulates the following:
Publishing identity information of a person, or a person related to the victim:
- intending to facilitate the use of unlawful violence against the victim or another person; or
- knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that it is likely to facilitate the use of such violence against the victim or any other person.
In this case, the victim need not be aware of the publication, and the fear of violence does not need be established. A can still be guilty. All that is needed is that A published the information with the intent to facilitate violence or that A ought to have known that it would facilitate violence.
What are the differences between these offences?
- The main difference between the three offences lies in the required form of guilt.
Under section 3, the publisher must have the intent to cause harassment, alarm, or distress to be found guilty.
Under section 5(1A), the publisher can be found guilty even if they did not have actual intent to cause fear of violence or facilitate violence. It is sufficient to show that the publisher knew, or ought to have known, that their actions are likely to cause fear or facilitate violence.
- The second difference relates to the target of the offence.
Under section 3, it is an offence if publication causes the target person or “any other person” harassment, alarm, or distress.
Facilitating the use of violence under section 5 is similar to the requirement under section 3. It can relate to the victim or “any other person”.
However, the section 5 offence of “causing fear of violence” relates only to the targeted victim. The person whose identifying information is published must be the one who fears violence against them or any other person. To go back to our example of A’s Facebook post, if B doesn’t fear the violence, A is not guilty of the offence, even if B’s family all fear violence.
Can “doxxing” be committed against a company?
No, doxxing can only be committed against a person, not an entity. A company can, however, commit doxxing. If a company falls victim to “doxxing”, it has other available remedies.
Penalties for doxxing
Those convicted under section 3 (causing harassment, alarm, or distress) can be liable to a fine of up to S$5000 or imprisonment of up to 6 months, or both.
If convicted under section 5, you can be sentenced to a fine of up to S$5000, imprisonment of up to 12 months, or both.
Is there a defence against “doxxing”?
Both sections 3 and 5 provide that it is a defence if the accused can prove that their conduct was reasonable. There is no definition for what constitutes “reasonable conduct”. The courts will evaluate all the circumstances to determine whether there was the required intent or knowledge for a conviction or whether the accused’s conduct was reasonable.
The Act uses the following example.
X records a video of Y driving recklessly in a car on the road. X posts the video on an online forum where people share snippets of dangerous acts of driving on the road. X posts the video with the intent to warn people to drive defensively. X has not committed an offence under this section.
Available remedies if you feel that you are the victim of doxxing
File a police report for criminal charges
The police will investigate, and if you can show that doxxing was committed against you under section 3 or 5(1A), the publisher could face criminal charges. If the doxxing was committed online, you should take screenshots or save the posts as evidence of the doxxing.
File a civil lawsuit against the publisher
If you can show that you suffered damages because of the doxxing, you may be able to file a civil action against the publisher for monetary compensation.
Section 12 of the POHA provides that the victim can apply for a protection order that requires the publisher to stop publishing the information.
The court may also order the internet platform to disable access to the information to end-users of the service in Singapore.
The Act provides for expedited protection orders in more serious cases.
The Singapore government made it clear that doxxing would not be tolerated when they criminalised “doxxing”. People guilty of such behaviour will face the full force of the law.
If you are a victim, doxxing can cause a lot of distress to you and your family. It is essential to gather as much evidence as you can and speak to a lawyer as soon as possible to discuss your rights and remedies.
If you are accused of “doxxing” but feel that you acted reasonably, you might have a defence. An experienced lawyer will evaluate your case and discuss your options with you.