Can we create a safer online space? Let’s look to the new Online Criminal Harms Bill  

We want safer online spaces for Singaporeans during this increasingly digital age. 

Especially since there were over 10,000 scam cases locally in 2022. Victims lost over $300 million in total. 

So, safer shopping online, more security against scams and overall swifter action against cybercriminal activities feature in the Online Criminal Harms Bill passed in Parliament today (Jul 5). 

“The bill makes special provisions for scams and malicious cyber activities,” noted Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo. 

“Such activities tend to unfold with great speed and skill. They inflict great harm on the victims, not just in terms of financial losses. The threshold to issue directions should therefore be lower than for other specified criminal offences,” she added.  

How does the Online Criminal Harms Bill make a difference? 

Briefly, the Bill works like this: 

Its Government Directions make online service providers take down suspiciously criminal content and accounts like the ones for scams and voyuerism mentioned here.  

“A Stop Communication Direction may be issued to someone who posts text or images inciting violence against people of a certain race,” added Minister Teo. 

Source: MCI 

Online service providers must also follow the Codes of Practice set out for preventing and answering online harms. These Codes will be updated for new threats and technologies. 

“We have decided to involve online service providers in crime prevention, because they have much more knowledge about what is happening on their platforms,” said Minister Teo. 

This is especially since online services can immediately access the relevant data and analytics. 

Additionally, the Police will have more power to deal with online crime.   

They can direct a social media service provider to disable a suspicious account — this proactively prevents the suspicious account from reaching Singaporeans. 

Melvin Yong, Yip Hong Weng and Murali Pillai ask key questions 

And there to make sure this Online Criminal Harms Bill is comprehensive and makes a positive difference?  

Our MPs asking pertinent questions on criminal liability, fair investigation and non-compliance by foreign online stakeholders. 

Like MP Melvin Yong (Radin Mas SMC), who is also President of the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE), asking about holding the key executives of e-commerce platforms criminally liable for offences if “they direct their firms not to comply, or to partially comply with the Directions issued.”  

Source: MCI 

“We want the executives of online platforms to take online harms seriously and to comply with the directions. But this does not mean that they have to be personally liable for non-compliance,” said Minister Teo. 

“There are more effective measures such as access blocking,” shared Minister Teo about the importance of accountability.  

“I don’t think any executive in his or her right mind would find it easy to explain to their colleagues why, because of non-compliance, access has been blocked.” 

“Extradition can be undertaken in respect of the individuals carrying out the underlying specified offences in accordance with the Extradition Act,” she added about personal accountability. 

In fact, this idea of bad actors from overseas impelled MP Yip Hong Weng’s (Yio Chu Kang SMC) questioning. 

“Why should the creators of such sites who are based overseas comply with such directions? What penalties do they face and what alternatives do we have, if they refuse?” he asked. 

Source: MCI 

“There are further steps that we can take. First, we can prosecute for non-compliance where possible. Second, the bill allows the competent authority to issue orders to restrict access to the non-compliant online service to prevent the criminal activity and content from being accessed by persons in Singapore,” said Minister Teo on this challenge which many countries also face.  

She gave reassurance too that these levers will be used judiciously and only when necessary. 

And MP Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok SMC), who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Home Affairs and Law, was concerned about how the Bill would actually work day-to-day.   

“My preference is for the ‘competent authority’ to be structurally separated from the investigation arm of an enforcement agency,” he said, referring to the body which will enforce the Act once it comes into place as well delineate the Codes of Practice mentioned earlier.  

Source: MCI 

“This will prevent any conflict in the dual roles contemplated for the authority,” he added, noting that this would let online service providers provide information in good faith rather fear it being used against them.   

“This will indeed be our approach,” said Minister Teo. 

“The competent authority will be sited within the Singapore Police Force and will be structurally separate from the police units that perform investigative functions and building up the competent authorities office.”  

“The appointment of authorised officers by the Minister will take into account the expertise and relationships required to effectively administer the bill,” she further detailed. 

All this care, and indeed all our efforts here — the Bill drafting, the questioning, and the adding to Singapore’s other laws for safe online spaces do make two connected facts clear: We know that cyberspace can be dangerous — and so we are constantly cleaning it up for Singaporeans.