Time to take the online harassment problem more seriously

September 04, 2019 12:42
Among the worrisome developments during the Hong Kong protest movement is the targeting of police officers and their families by publishing their personal information online. Photo: Reuters

It is hard not to feel a growing sense of disquiet about the developments in Hong Kong in the past few months and the impact on society. The extradition bill has been abandoned, but the protests against it have broadened into a movement aimed at the government, and also against the police.

The divisions in the community are considerable. I know of families that have almost stopped talking to each other because of disagreements. There has also been an outpouring of hatred being spread through social media.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data recently announced that it was dealing with 768 cases of alleged online harassment and bullying that possibly infringes privacy. According to the agency, 70 percent of the cases involved the targeting of police officers and their families.

In many cases, online platforms were used to publish pictures of officers and their personal information, including names, addresses, phone numbers, educational record, etc. What was even more shocking was that even the officers' spouses and their children were not spared, with their details, too, being made public. As a result, the officers and their families, including children, received online insults and threats.

All this has highlighted the bigger problem of cyber-bullying.

For those of us who remember the pre-Internet age, bullying was something that happened in schoolyards or in the workplace. This still happens – though thankfully schools and companies today take the issue very seriously -- but the larger issue now is online harassment.

Online harassment is often anonymous in origin, which makes it more disturbing and frightening for victims. It can be spread through social media and other Internet channels in such a way that whole groups of people – like children in a school – can see it, which hugely magnifies the stress and anxiety it causes.

Many victims are adults. One example is where people are lured into sending someone a revealing or embarrassing picture, and is then blackmailed. Other issues involve stalking or putting out malicious or false allegations or spreading of personal details.

The problem is most disturbing where children are involved. Several surveys show that large numbers of children have experienced some form of unpleasant behavior online. In many cases, it is name-calling or simple mockery. But even this raises anxiety, and unlike a similar incident in real life, the online abuse can be directed to large numbers of people for days or weeks.

Other forms of harassment would be nasty for anyone of any age. Once case reported in a survey involved a photo of a child sitting on a toilet. Imagine the impact on, say, a young teen perhaps going through typical academic or self-esteem worries – and such a picture circulates among classmates of both sexes. It is not surprising researchers are finding links between cyber-bullying and depression and even thoughts of suicide among young people.

A Hong Kong Polytechnic University survey has suggested that education is needed to prompt young people to be more careful with regard to their personal material online.

There have been some government publicity campaigns on this issue, and the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups runs a hotline to give support for victims of cyber-bullying.

However, more needs to be done.

Social media providers also have a role to play. Picture-sharing platforms such as Instagram have been abused by online bullies who add anonymous insulting or threatening comments to users' posts. They also gang up to share humiliating pictures of individuals.

Instagram has taken steps to try to sort out the problem. The company started off by automatically screening user accounts for issues like racial insults. The social media titan has now begun using artificial intelligence – building on input from human moderators – to develop more complex ways of tackling cyber-bullying.

Ultimately, however, governments need to think about legislation. Hong Kong does not yet have any laws specifically about harassment or intimidation online, although it has outlined offenses such as criminal intimidation or the making of offensive phone calls.

Legal and youth welfare groups in the city have looked into the idea of passing laws on the issue, but there are several challenges. The concept of such offense needs to be defined - legal experts generally agree that the behavior needs to be intentional, repetitive and against someone who cannot defend themselves. There may also be problems with identifying perpetrators.

Still, many jurisdictions overseas have implemented such legislation. The Law Reform Commission has broadly backed the idea in principle in Hong Kong. Given the recent privacy-breach cases pertaining to police officers and their families, including children, one hopes the community will take the matter more seriously.

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Executive Council member and former legislator; Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress