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Cyberbully Overload: Do Our Cyberbullying Laws Going Too Far?

cyberbullyingA Sydney, Cape Breton man named Rob Romard recently received a warning from Nova Scotia’s newly created anti-cyberbullying unit, CyberSCAN, advising him to remove any and all social media posts he’d made regarding his former employer, Cape Breton Hyundai, within 48 hours.

CyberSCAN advised Mr. Romard that if the posts were not removed, the province would obtain a court order to force their removal.

Mr. Romard has not complied with the CyberSCAN unit’s directive, citing “freedom of speech”.

“I’m being accused of being a cyberbully for publicizing this, which is really not what this legislation is there for,” he told the Halifax Chronicle-Herald. “I’m allowed to state stuff that’s fact.”

Provincial SCAN legislation (Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods) exists throughout Canada, all of it designed to help people anonymously inform the police of the existence of criminal activity, like drug dealing or sexual exploitation or violence.

Since the high-profile deaths of Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons, suicides provoked by merciless online bullying, governments both provincial and federal have reacted with versions of “safe communities” law directed at combating online harassment.

The federal government has drafted Bill C-13, also known as the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act.

Admirable as the intention may be to never repeat a situation in which a young girl kills herself because of online bullying or revenge porn, we also need to make sure the system isn’t abused from the top down, using a combination of surveillance, technology and the law to prevent the airing of unpleasant opinions.

In the case of Rob Romard versus Cape Breton Hyundai, these are grown people who are known to each other, living in the same community, engaged in the kind of ugly workplace dispute that plays out in office environments everywhere every single day.

By contrast, Rehtaeh Parsons killed herself after a photo was shared online of her being sexually assaulted at a house party by a pack of drunken teenage boys.

As Rehtaeh Parsons’ father Glen Canning told the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights in Ottawa last May, the failure of law enforcement in prosecuting his daughter’s tormenters was primarily a matter of reluctance on their part to get involved because it “was not a police or law enforcement issue.”

The police knew whose phone snapped the photo, as well as the identities of everyone involved, but seized no cellphones, tracked no phone numbers, spoke to no witnesses, and gathered no evidence. By the time the police issued warrants for cellular data, which took months to process, the image was spread far and wide and the girl was dead.

“Bill C-13 is not going to replace indifference or incompetence when it comes to addressing cybercrime,” Mr. Canning told the Committee, “but hopefully due to stories like Rehtaeh’s, Amanda’s, Jamie’s, and Ally’s, police departments across Canada are getting the message that this can be deadly, and it needs to be addressed quickly and effectively.”

“Today, social media has permitted the development of a culture of intimidation that wasn’t there before. It never ends. We’ve got to put a stop to it.” – Quebec health minister Gaétan Barrette

If the aim of cyberbullying legislation is to allow law enforcement to act quickly in order to prevent the viral spread of compromising data so that we don’t end up with another suicide as the result of online harassment, it seems strange that it’s being applied to a workplace dispute between grown adults, when already existing libel or defamation law should resolve the matter.

There is no need for urgency in this case. Nude photos are not being shared online. Nobody’s life is being ruined, never mind the life of a vulnerable young girl.

It’s not a case of cyberbullying. It’s garden variety defamation, and Cape Breton Hyundai has availed itself, absolutely within the law, of an end-run around the long, tedious process of taking the defamer to court.

Simply because bad things happen online does not automatically escalate a situation beyond a banal case of people badmouthing each other in public. What’s different about the internet is that it is basically a publishing platform.

While social media may feel more “conversational” than a newspaper article, writing something online carries the same legal weight as any other published work. That same comfort level probably made the passing around of a photo of Rehtaeh Parsons seem okay to her immediate social group.

As Mr. Canning pointed out to the Committee in charge of accepting stakeholder input in the lead-up to crafting Bill C-13, the bill “is not going to replace indifference or incompetence when it comes to addressing cybercrime.”

Technology will never fix human incompetence or indifference. If anything, it probably serves to heighten those qualities by turning very real human situations into abstract stories that we comment on or forward or like.

Last July, Quebec health minister Gaétan Barrette’s Wikipedia picture was replaced by a crude drawing that made him look like a potato. “Today, social media has permitted the development of a culture of intimidation that wasn’t there before,” he told La Presse. “It never ends. We’ve got to put a stop to it.”

He’s right, it never ends. No law will ever put a stop to human cruelty.

And if we don’t err on the side of caution when drawing up legislation, the capacity for law enforcement or the government or your ex-employer to erase the distinction between activity that threatens public security and behaviour that they personally find inconvenient or objectionable is something else that won’t ever end.

You can remove unpleasant things from the internet, or stop reading the comment sections of news articles. People will find novel and interesting ways to be jerks.

But there is a big difference between your face online as a potato drawing and a photo of a teenage girl being sexually assaulted which is then spread around the internet for all her friends to see.

“The powers provided under Bill C-13 will allow access to potentially sensitive personal information for all manner of investigation and enforcement action.” – Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien

While Nova Scotia has reacted to the horrifying case of Rehtaeh Parsons by establishing a CyberSCAN program, not all provinces are following suit.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Union has opposed C-13, which it regards as a “Trojan horse” for resurrecting the federal government’s defeated online surveillance legislation, Bill C-30.

Amanda Todd’s mother, Carol, has her doubts about C-13, too. Amanda Todd was a Port Coquitlam teenager who was harassed to death by an internet troll in the Netherlands, an obviously mentally unstable man who is now in prison.

At the same Committee that Glen Canning appeared at in May, Carol Todd said, “While I applaud the efforts of all of you in crafting the sextortion, revenge porn, and cyberbullying sections of Bill C-13, I am concerned about some of the other unrelated provisions that have been added to the bill in the name of Amanda, Rehtaeh, and all of the children lost to cyberbullying attacks.”

She continued, “I don’t want to see our children victimized again by losing privacy rights. I am troubled by some of these provisions condoning the sharing of the privacy information of Canadians without proper legal process. We are Canadians with strong civil rights and values. A warrant should be required before any Canadian’s personal information is turned over to anyone, including government authorities.”

In a written submission to the Committee, Canada’s Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien wrote, “The powers provided under Bill C-13 will allow access to potentially sensitive personal information for all manner of investigation and enforcement action. Electronic surveillance and data analyses have become increasingly powerful in the digital era, given that every transaction, every message, every online search, every call and movement across the Internet leaves a recorded trace and is, therefore, potentially subject to scrutiny.”

The debates over Bills C-13 and C-51, the Anti-Terrorism Act, demonstrate that there is significant room for doubt that the authorities are capable of, or even interested in, striking an effective balance between law enforcement’s ability to prevent actual crime and the unintended consequences that result from the availability of new law enforcement powers that can also prevent, for example, a disgruntled employee from badmouthing his ex-boss.

As Gaétan Barrette points out, it never ends.

It may be unsavoury to suggest that the government is using the opportunity presented by the recent suicides of teenagers triggered by online bullying to roll out a piece of legislation that will expand surveillance in ways that run counter to the bill’s stated intent, but it’s a lot more unsavoury to exclude the voices of people like Carol Todd from the process of drafting the bill just because her remarks don’t jibe with their apparent objectives.

Canada owes the families of actual victims of cyberbullying a better legacy than the consequences of Bill C-13 and CyberSCAN.

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  1. It’s interesting that, within an article that talks about what people can say online, you write ‘Amanda Todd was a Port Coquitlam teenager who was harassed to death by
    an internet troll in the Netherlands, an obviously mentally unstable man
    who is now in prison.’
    There is no evidence she was harassed to death by a single person; the court case in the Netherlands to definitely link the man to the Todd case has not taken place (he has actually claimed this in a well-publicised letter); and there is nothing to support ‘obviously mentally unstable’.

  2. Ms Parsons was also allegedly sexually assaulted. No one was ever charged withsexual assault even though police investigated the case. Its amazing what you can write under the aynonimity of being a journalist.

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