Whether in the physical world or the cyber world, the long arm of the law applies. In many instances, words uttered in cyber space can be amplified. Online actions do have offline consequences.
Some of the laws that you should take note of, especially if you live a highly visible and public life in the online world:
When you write or say something that causes someone "harm", your words can be considered defamatory by the court, especially when those words have been read or heard by many right-thinking people. Causing harm (defamation) can be defined as causing the person to lose his credibility or reputation; causing the person to be shunned or avoided; or simply exposing the person to potential ridicule, contempt or hatred. Whether your words are explicit or implied, or whether you merely repeated what someone else has written, you can still be liable for defamation. Liability is not based on your intention to defame someone; the law is more concerned with the effect of your statements. So, even if you could prove that you had no intention to defame anyone, that would not get you off the hook because the court would deem that the harm or damage has been done. Defamation encompasses 'libel' (the term generally used for written words) and 'slander' (for spoken words).
It is possible to commit defamation in the online world through postings on any website, blogs and social networking sites like Facebook. Even tweets on Twitter and to an extent, SMSes and emails, may be subject to a defamation suit where one may be liable to pay damages. There are a range of defences available like justification, fair comment and qualified privilege, but one should generally be careful when making allegations of misconduct. It is always good practice to verify the source or truth of one's information.
There is also the offence of criminal defamation under section 499 of the Penal Code. If you write or say something with the intention to harm, or have reason to believe that your words will cause harm to the reputation of the person, you have committed criminal defamation. There are exceptions however: it is not defamation if you are expressing an honest opinion about how the person is conducting his public functions, or about his character in relation to how he is carrying out his public functions. The penalty for criminal defamation is imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years, or with a fine.
Breach of Confidence
If you publish or upload photographs taken of another person in a private setting without authorisation, you may expose yourself to a lawsuit for breach of confidence. If, as the photographer, you know (or ought to know) that the person being photographed expects that the photos will be kept private, the court may construe that there is a relationship of confidence between the two parties. So, in publishing such photos, you may be deemed to have committed a breach of confidence.
In England, for example, the court has ruled that those who were present at the wedding of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones were subject to an obligation of confidence because of the steps the couple had taken to ensure their privacy, and that unauthorised photographs of the wedding could not be published.
In the online world, where it is common for friends to be uploading and geo-tagging photos, it is always good practice and a courtesy to inform your friends, if they don't already know.
The law presumes that the person who has taken a photograph to be the author of that creative work, and therefore has the exclusive legal right to publish or reproduce the photograph. The same rule applies to composers of a musical work or producers of a movie. An unauthorised posting of a photograph, article, music video, film clip or street map on a website or social networking site is likely to be copyright infringement, and the person who uploads such unauthorised content may be sued by the copyright owner.
There are a number of defences available — like fair dealing — but a significant proportion of re-posted content online today may not be eligible for these defences. A copyright owner can seek an injunction (a court order requiring you to remove the infringing content and to stop uploading such content in the future) and monetary compensation in a copyright infringement claim in the Singapore courts. The same rights apply to you if you find that people are reposting your original work on social networks - you could request for removal or sue for copyright infringement, which could potentially be a cumbersome process and therefore, not usually taken by the average individual.
In the online world, the best practice is not to upload, download or circulate content that does not belong to you.
Sedition Act (Chapter 290)
Sedition is often defined as a crime committed against the state. In Singapore, any person who does any act which has or which would, if done, have a seditious tendency shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction for a first offence to a fine not exceeding $5,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 years or to both.
"Seditious tendency" includes uttering any seditious words, or publishing/reproducing any seditious publication. But what exactly is "Seditious tendency"? It is defined very broadly in the legislation: it encompasses a tendency (i) to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the Government; (ii) to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the administration of justice in Singapore; (iii) to raise discontent or disaffection amongst the citizens of Singapore or the residents in Singapore; (iv) to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore.
On online social networking sites, what you say/write may be found to have a seditious tendency. For example postings/status updates on Facebook that single out a particular racial or religious group/custom/practice may be construed to be promoting feelings of ill-will and hostility between different demographic groups in Singapore. Similarly, online postings against the Government or the judiciary may also be prosecuted under the Sedition Act if they contained a seditious tendency.
Racial and Religious Harmony — Penal Code (Chapter 224)
Complementing the Sedition Act, sections 298 and 298A of the Penal Code impose fines and imprisonment penalties for words — which include online postings — that are intended to wound the religious or racial feelings of another individual or to promote feelings of ill-will between different religious and racial groups in Singapore.
If you do or say something to a person to deliberately wound his religious or racial feelings, you could be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 3 years, or with fine, or with both. The same punishment applies if you were to promote or knowingly promote disharmony, ill-will or hatred between different religious and racial groups by using words, signs or other objects. More generally, anyone who commits any act which he or she knows is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious or racial groups and which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquility, also commits an offence.
Public Order Act (Chapter 257A)
Any person who assists or promotes the holding, convening, forming or collecting of any assembly or procession without a relevant permit under the Public Order Act may be committing an offence liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $5,000. Repeat offenders may be also jailed. Under the Public Order Act, a person who "organises an illegal assembly or procession can be construed broadly to include anyone who uses online media — for example, through Facebook — to encourage others to attend a gathering, meeting, march or parade, the purpose (or one of the purposes) of which is (i) to demonstrate support for or opposition to the views or actions of any person, group of persons or any government; (ii) to publicise a cause or campaign; or (iii) to mark or commemorate any event."
If you would like to organize a public gathering for any social, civil or political cause, you should first obtain permission from the Police.
Incitement to Violence — Penal Code (Chapter 224)
Under section 267C of the Penal Code, whoever makes or communicates any electronic record, (a) containing any incitement to violence; or (b) counselling disobedience to the law or to any lawful order of a public servant; or (c) likely to lead to any breach of the peace, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 5 years, or with fine, or with both.
Simply put, you could get into trouble if you use social media, email, sms, etc to encourage violence or un-peaceful acts.
Distribution of Obscene Materials — Penal Code (Chapter 224)
Under section 292 of the Penal Code, whoever transmits by electronic means, or has in his possession any obscene book, pamphlet, paper, drawing, painting, representation or figure, or any other obscene object whatsoever, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 3 months, or with fine, or with both. "Object" is defined broadly to include data stored in a computer disc, or by other electronic means, that is capable of conversion to images, writing or any other form of representation.
This means that it is an offence to download and possess any type of pornographic materials. It also means that if you upload sexually explicit photos of yourself or your girlfriend/boyfriend online, you will also get into trouble. If the person in the photo is under sixteen years old, you could also be charged for sexual exploitation of a child or young person under the Children and Young Persons Act (Chapter 38).
Computer Misuse Act (Chapter 50A)
Any person who knowingly causes a computer to perform any function for the purpose of securing access without authority to any program or data held in any computer shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $5,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years or to both. This legislation criminalises the act of hacking into someone else's computer regardless of whether the other party has suffered any harm. Where one attempts to cause an unauthorised modification of the contents of any computer, the penalties are more serious; one found guilty of such an offence shall be liable to a fine not exceeding $10,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 years or to both.