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The Double-Edged Sword of Anti-Doxing Laws

Dispatches from our founder
This Week
Hello, friends,
When I first started writing about tech and privacy issues back in 2010, some of my journalist colleagues expressed concern: “Privacy crackdowns will hurt our work,” they told me. 
I was not deterred. But it was a good reminder of the uneasy relationship that can exist between the right to privacy and freedom of expression. And perhaps nowhere is that tension clearer than in the rise of anti-doxing laws, chronicled by reporter Emma Betuel in The Markup this week.  
Doxing is an online harassment tactic that involves making someone’s address, contact information, identity, or other information public, usually in order to intimidate, frighten, or incite public outrage. It can lead to physical stalking and assault. 
And doxing can fuel a practice known as “swatting,” in which harassers call the police and claim that a terrible crime has happened at the victim’s address, hoping that the police will dispatch a heavily armed SWAT team. Last year, a 60-year-old man died of a heart attack when he was “swatted” by two people who doxed and harassed him because he wouldn’t turn over his Twitter handle of @Tennessee. 
This year, at least 11 states have passed laws against doxing or strengthened existing cyberstalking laws to include the practice, and several other states are considering anti-doxing laws.
Advocates say that these laws will help victims seek redress and give law enforcement more reason to investigate cyberstalking incidents involving doxing. All too often law enforcement is ill-equipped to help victims and doesn’t always understand how online harassment can result in real-world harm. The hope is that police officers might change their tune given the addition of a doxing charge, especially if it amounts to a felony. 
Tanya Gersh, who was doxed by a neo-Nazi group, told Emma, “The lack of the doxing laws is why this did happen to me, and why it has happened to so many people before me.” 
But free speech advocates worry about restricting the public’s ability to identify bad actors. “Posting information online and in other forums is one of the few ways that ordinary people have to hold people in a position of power accountable,” Holly Welborn of the Nevada branch of the American Civil Liberties Union told The Associated Press.
Consider how doxing has been a key weapon for both sides in the anti-China extradition protests in Hong Kong. When some police failed to display their ID numbers on their uniforms in 2019, activists circulated photos of officers who had used excessive force, and their identifying information was used to harass them. Meanwhile, journalists, pro-democracy activists, and lawmakers found themselves being doxed on websites that they suspected were operated by China supporters. 
Hong Kong is now proposing amendments to its privacy laws that would potentially punish anyone posting personal information intended to harass, threaten, or intimidate with up to five years in jail and a fine of more than $100,000.
U.S. tech companies are protesting the broad sweep of the amendments and their impact on free speech. The Asia Internet Coalition, which represents Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other tech companies, sent a letter to the Hong Kong privacy commissioner objecting to the overly broad definition of doxing, which was simply described as “actions that are intrusive to personal data privacy and in effect weaponise personal data.”
The companies argued that such vague definitions would give regulators broad leeway to restrict content and make it hard for companies to put effective systems in place to enforce the law. The end result, the companies argued, was that platforms would overblock content, likely resulting “in grave impact on due process and risks for freedom of expression and communication.”
The Hong Kong Journalists Association, meanwhile, expressed concern that anti-doxing laws would be used to restrict legitimate journalistic use of public records. “Many media reports involving major public interests, including illegal construction of high-ranking government officials and election fraud, have been revealed through registry search,” the association said in a statement. 
It’s too soon to say what the impact of these new anti-doxing laws will be in the U.S. or in Hong Kong, but if the fallout from laws against “fake news” are any guide, it’s not likely to land in favor of journalists and dissidents. 
Nations around the world have rushed to pass laws criminalizing misinformation in recent years. (The Poynter Institute has a nice map of countries that have taken legal action against misinformation.) But many of those countries—notably Russia, Hungary, and the Philippines—have used the rules as weapons against the press. 
To cite just one example: In Singapore, the government used its newly minted law against fake news to bring charges against an opposition politician and an Australian blog that made claims about a Singapore politician.
Such episodes have become so frequent that even The Economist weighed in recently with a bluntly headlined article: “Censorious governments are abusing fake news laws.” 
Let’s hope that the current crop of anti-doxing laws doesn’t turn from protecting the privacy of innocent civilians to upending free speech. 
As always, thanks for reading.
Julia Angwin
The Markup
From The Markup
Should Doxing Be Illegal?
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