Friday, 30 March 2012

Netizen activism

An interesting development is taking place in Singapore on the use or rather abuse of social media in expressing one's thoughts and feelings online.

First is the case of Mr Sun Xu, 25, a Chinese undergrad scholarship holder at the National University of Singapore (NUS), was fined $3,000 by the university and ordered to complete three months of community service. His crime? He posted derogatory remarks about Singaporeans on a blog and did so while he was on Singapore government scholarship.

Shortly after Mr. Sun's case, another student, Ms Shimun Lai of Nanyang Polytechnic, had a screenshot of a racially offensive tweet that insulted indians, re-posted.

This time netizens, majority of whom were non-Indians expressed their outrage online. It is not clear whether the polytechnic will take action against Ms. Lai's post but at least one police report has been lodged against her by a citizen stating he was doing so as 'any good citizen' would.

What we're witnessing here is an example of online activism by users of social media. Mr. Sun's case may be different from Ms. Lai's in that he published his thoughts for all and sundry to see. Ms. Lai published her views to a private group of friends, one of whom decided to take a screenshot and re-published this for the world to see.

Ms. Lai has since gone into hiding by deactivating her twitter and Facebook accounts, probably driven by the abuse she was getting online.

Questions are being raised in the media on whether all this 'verbal lynching' is justified and whether netizens are too quick in crying 'foul' seeking justice.

Well, a derogatory remark made privately is definitely not the same as publishing it online- where all can see. Such remarks have consequences and if it crosses the line into something criminal, serious repercussions will be the result.

Closer to home, Mr. Adi Adip Mohamad, 28, was sentenced to 10 months imprisonment after he pleaded guilty to charges of outraging the modesty of his ex by uploading obscene pictures and videos of his ex performing sexual acts on Facebook.

Mr. Adi's motive was probably to spite his ex-girlfriend after breaking up with her. What is startling is that recipients of the photos and video did not appear to have taken a stand to chastise him nor was a police report lodged by any of the recipients - quite unlike the situation in Singapore.

Further, Mr. Sun was taken to task by the university, not the police.

That's not to say that Brunei netizens take no action when they see something wrong online. Numerous complaints were posted online when photos of accident victims were recklessly uploaded on Facebook causing distress to the victim's families and friends. But this action seems to be the exception rather the rule here.

The few lessons to be learnt by these cases:
1. You are responsible for what you posted on line, even if you intended it as a private 'chat';

2. Netizens do and can take action against you and it's not just up to law enforcement agencies anymore;

3. It's better to be responsible, rather than be sorry later - the consequences may be more serious than you think.;

Brunei netizens have some way to go in online self regulation but I think it's only a matter of time.

Till then, be safe online.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Email is not dead. It is out of control.

Mark Zuckerberg's declaration that email is dead was ironic since this was said as Facebook launched its 'messaging' service.

In his article titled "Mark Zuckerberg says the email's end is nigh. LOL" John Naughton suggested that the "infant prodigy" misses the point - I couldn't agree more.

While soothsayers predict the end of emails citing the decline in email usage among 12 to 17 year olds, the fact remains that these young persons have not started work. And when they do, boy are they in for a culture shock!

Organisations thrive on emails. Even those users in Brunei who try to resist its use citing the lack of official status of email communications are in for a rude shock. Email communications can bind, create contracts et al. The Electronic Transactions Act made sure of that.

If what was said by the Minister in charge of E-Government in his speech delivered by the Permanent Secretary of Energy at the e-Government Executive Training Programme for Permanent Secretaries and Deputy Permanent Secretaries is anything to go by, email usage within government is likely to increase, not decrease.

So Mr. Zuckerberg, I think you are wrong. Those statistics you speak of do not represent the use of the currently accepted method of communication of the working masses.

Communicating by email and the finer points of email etiquette should be taught to 12 to 17 year olds if anything to act as a buffer between the rude shock transitioning from SMS and codespeak on social networking sites to communicating at work via emails.

Or maybe we should just go back to plain old speaking to one another.

Till the next post, stay safe online.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Saying No to photos

Having recently survived a family wedding, I just realized how I hate having my picture taken. There were just so many trigger happy people who I am sure only had good intentions of sharing in a happy occasion.

But when I was berated for refusing to join in a photo which was being taken by a serial Facebook uploader, I had to take a stand .

I did not want a photo which was going on a social network site with some silly tag or comment. Being called a 'lousy sport' just drove home my fear that people are caring less about what their photo subjects feel. This is a poor reflection of what is understood of the dangers of the use of social networking sites, especially by the young and clueless adults.

Gone are the days when a photo stayed within the covers of a photo album. Today any digital photo may be uploaded on the Internet, published for the world to see if it wants to.

There has to be some ethical boundaries for photos and tagging on social networking sites.

JK Rowling took a company to court for covertly taking photos of her son in a buggy while out on a Sunday stroll. The case of Murray v Big Pictures Ltd. is hailed as one of the groundbreaking authorities in the field of privacy law. The author, suing under her real name, won a claim for breach of privacy of her son David.

Although not many of us can make a claim to fame such as Ms Rowling's son can, the point made here is that you can have a say as to what is to be done of photos taken of you - especially if they are pictures of children.

Friends often ask what can be done of photos published on a Facebook site of a not-so-friendly acquaintance or someone with an axe to grind. The answer is 'Not much'. This may even be the case if objections were made to the photographer. The law on the tort of breach of privacy is still developing in the English courts. There is no similar development here.

So what can can you do? This brings be back to taking a stand when photos were being taken. I said a firm 'No', explained that I did not trust the photographer enough despite his promise not to post the photo online, and walked away.

I am not that naive to think that this will stop photos being posted online. The only way to protect myself from being seen doing something stupid is not to do something stupid.

Till the next time, stay safe online.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Reputations On-the-line | Defamation in Cyberspace

3 interesting articles caught my attention this week, all having to do with protecting reputations in cyberspace.

The first was about a famous British footballer who went to the English courts for a Super Injunction but yet got his story splashed across the world by tweets emanating from the U.S. This is an example of how helpless reputations become when something negative is written about it online. The Super Injunction prohibited the  publication of the story regarding the footballer and his alleged affair which did not seem to be effective accoss the Atlantic from where the order was made.

Second, there was the story of a Malaysian blogger who was ordered to publish apologies by tweeting 100 tweet posts from his twitter account for defaming a Malaysian publishing company. The tweet read  "I've DEFAMED xxxxxx Magazine. My tweets on their HR Policies are untrue. I retract those words & hereby apologize", complete with a counter as to how far he's got through the hundred apologies. The tweets were ordered as part of a punishment for the blogger's views. The article was not clear whether there were other forms of compensation ordered for the defamation, but this is definitely a highly unusual and innovative way of compensating those who are a victim of defamatory remarks published online.

Lastly, a piece on the Atlantic about a Brooklyn Congressman dealing with "a very 21st century scandal involving a West Coast college student, dick pics, allegations of hacking, and (what else?) Twitter". The article touted the beleaguered Congressman's decision not to take legal action for what could be a damaging episode to his political career. Referring to the Streisand Effect where efforts taken to hide information merely leads to the opposite result, in this case, extending the "story's press cycle".

These separate events teaches us a few things -

One - super injunctions are not invincible. While the law on defamation in England & Wales has developed the remedy of the 'super' injunction which purports to extend its jurisdiction worldwide, it is demonstrably toothless in the online context vis-a-vis another jurisdiction. The footballer's name was eventually published in the U.K by the press citing reports published elsewhere revealing his name. Although denied of a scoop, the British press was eventually able to publish the footballer's name despite the injunction.

Secondly, litigants and courts are developing a level of sophistication when dealing with defamation online. Gone are the days that the payment of damages and a published apology will suffice. When the Malaysian blogger had to publish 100 tweets, its' effect was definitely better than a single page apology published in the traditional press. The litigant showed an appreciation for the impact of social media and harnessed this to its advantage. Another point to note, it is easier to enforce remedies for defamatory statements if these are made locally. The blogger and the company subject to the defamatory statements were both Malaysian. It would have taken a while longer to enforce its rights if the claimant was located in a different jurisdiction.

Lastly, Court action may not be the answer to your online woes. The Congressman was well aware that going  to court to clear his name may, in fact, perpetuate the story online, much to chagrin of Mr. Giggs.

This is not intended to be a discussion on the law of defamation as that would take a whole book by itself.  But briefly, Brunei does have defamation law which can be found at Chapter 192 of the Laws of Brunei. It is based on the English law of defamation. You won't find a definition of what is "defamation" in there, but the principle applied by the Courts in deciding whether a statement is defamatory are that it must be in a form of words which tends to do one of the following:

  • lower the claimant in the estimation of normal right thinking people;
  • expose the claimant to hatred, contempt or ridicule; or
  • caused the claimant to be shunned or avoided.  
The statement must be made to someone else other than the claimant.  

Section 3 of the Defamation Act stipulates that the broadcasting of words by means of telecommunication shall be treated as publication in a permanent form for the purpose of the law of libel and slander. This means that a tweet or a FB post may qualify as a defamatory statement. Further, Brunei's law follows the English position on re-publication. A publisher of a defamatory statement made by another, will render the publisher liable for damages as well. This is very different from the U.S position where the first publication rules applies.

What this entails for an ISP is that any defamatory statement carried on its networks or service of which it is made aware of, may render it liable to a claimant for the publication of the defamatory statement. Although Section 10 of the Electronic Transactions Act (Cap. 196) provides some immunity for third-party material, this immunity may be lost if the ISP comes under an obligation to remove, block or deny access to such material.  

While cyberspace, well, at least the one around Brunei is not immune to the effects of the laws of defamation, it is worth remembering that such laws exist and it is worth your while to always be responsible when posting comments online. I have heard of complaints from victims of defamatory and other hurtful comments made online, and don't let the lack of legal action put you on a false assumption that nothing can be done about it.

The law does provide remedies and it is only a question of time that a case is litigated here. Or, it could be just a case of avoiding the Streisand effect or a lack of understanding about rights and responsibilities online. But let's not take unnecessary risks, okay and be a responsible citizen online.  

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Time for Anti Spam legislation in Brunei?

Lately I have been receiving email as part of a bulk email sender's list. This included a restaurant touting its newly renovated premises, a telco promoting a product and a hotel selling king sized juicy T-bone steaks.

While I love steaks and am grateful for the information about the product update from the telco, I have never been a patron at the restaurant that sent that mass email. What's worse, the sender did not know about the undisclosed recipients feature resulting in everybody's email being published to everyone else in the mailing list. What's stopping anyone on that list copying those emails and sending other useless information to me and everyone else on that list?

Which brings me to the need for Anti-Spam legislation. Such legislation makes it an offence to send out unsolicited emails. The same legislation will make it compulsory for bulk email senders to give a choice of opting out of the mailing list.

Telcos and service providers are usually the main opponents to such law because of the duties placed on them to ensure that their services do not facilitate the sendng of unsolicited emails.

Nevertheless, I think it's time for such law and time to see the end of spam.

Friday, 25 March 2011

I am often asked about what IT laws does Brunei have, so It might be a good time to just say a few things about this.

Brunei has three main pieces of legislation dealing with IT - these are the Electronic Transactions Act (Cap. 196),the Broadcasting Act (Cap. 180) and the Computer Misuse Act (Cap. 194).

The Electronic Tansactions Act as its long title states, makes provision for the security and use of electronic transactions and for connected purposes. This act gives legal effect to any information which is in the form of an electronic record. This means that a contract is still binding even if it solely made via electronic means. This may sound like a given today, but the concept of an electornic contract spawned much debate including questions on whether there should be law to regulate electronic contracts. We took the pragmatic view that an electronic is merely a medium by which a contract can be made. Laws governing contracts stil apply despite the contract being made in cyberspace thereby it is unnecessary to pass a new contract law.

However, it is important to note the exceptions to certain contracts which will not be given legal effect in its electronic form in Brunei. These are any legal instrument or document under any written law relating to Islamic law; the creation or execution of a will under any written law relating wills; negotiable instruments; the creation, performance or enforcement of an indenture; declaration of trust or power of attorney with the exception of constructive and resulting trusts; any contract for the sale or other disposition of immovable property, or any interest in such property; the conveyance of immovable property or the transfer of any interest in such property and documents of title relating to immovable property.

At the time of writing, Part X of the act relating to the Regulation of Certification Authorities have not come into force.

The Broadcasting Act regulates the dealing in, the operation of and ownership in broadcasting services and broadcasting apparatus, and for connected purposes. The Internet as we know it, is the most powerful broadcasting medium on earth and it comes as no surprise that the regulation of the provision of and the use of Internet services come under the purview of the Braodcasting Act.

Two important subsidiary legislation are published under the Broadcasting Act and these are the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification and the Internet Code of Practice Notification. The class licence notification is an ingenious licensing scheme established to recognize the fact that it is impossible to make anyone apply for a licence to use the Internet. A licensing scheme called a class licence is created so that anyone who uses the Internet in Brunei, is deemed to be a licensee under the Broadcating Act. And by being a licensee, a user is bound by the terms and conditions set out under the Class Licence, thereby taking the phrase 'ignorance of the law is not a defence' to new heights because even if you've never read the t&c s of the Class Licence, you're automatically bound by it simply by using the Internet.

Among the more important conditions are ensuring that any broadcasting service is not against the public interest or national harmony or which offends against good taste or decency.

Look out for my post on the Computer Misuse Act in my next post. Till then, stay safe on the Web.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Website Bans: Why it won't work.

Hi everyone! It's been awhile since I have written in this blog. It is turning out to be an untypical year end - no winding down in sight. Quite the opposite in fact, the rate of new work has been ramped up and no one appears to be in a holiday mood yet, at least not from the pile I am staring at on my table.

The Borneo Bulletin opinion page carried an interesting op piece titled "Block dirty porn not useful social network" by AH of BSB. This opinion was probably prompted by the news circulated in the rumour mill about an impending Facebook ban in Brunei Darussalam which prompted AiTi, the info-communication technology regulators to clarify its "no comment" stance made earlier. The irony in this Facebook ban episode is that the E-Government National Center announces the very next day that it was holding a contest on its Facebook page for citizens and permanent residents to name the Brunei National Portal. 

The op piece writer lamented any notion of banning social networking sites due to their usefulness as a cost-effective platform for advertising his homegrown photography business. His plea instead, was to ban the dirty site  and let the useful ones live - a notion which appeals to every policy maker, parent or business user of the Internet, but one which is doomed from the outset. It also demonstrates the lack on understanding of how the Internet works.

Blocking websites especially ones which generate large volumes of traffic online is a near impossible task. Just ask those trying to deny access to Wikileaks. The reason for this can partly be explained by the number alternatives available to access any kind of material on the Internet. These include access via the web, file-sharing networks, news groups, discussion boards and the like. This BBC article speaks for itself. While acknowledging that "dirty" websites pose legitimate concerns, technologically, effective blocking is "not possible". I guess the surefire way to block those sites is to disconnect from the Internet altogether, but that would mean no social networking site and no email either.

What I learnt from this event is really how important the Internet is to our daily lives today. More importantly is the freedom of expression that we enjoy. While it is not to the extent that is experienced in liberalist societies, it is nevertheless there for the average netizen in Brunei. The fear, even as unsubstantiated as the one  that was circulated, was enough to stir responses and concerns. Perhaps we should learn not to take things for granted now should we?