Nova Scotia's New Cyberbullying Law Will 'Make Bullies Of Us All'

from the 'fixing'-something-by-breaking-it dept

Another anti-cyberbullying ordinance has been rolled out in response to a tragedy. This time it's Nova Scotia enacting a new law aimed at combating the sort of behavior that resulted in the suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons.

Parsons' story is particularly horrible. Cyberbullying was only part of the problem. The much larger issue was the actual crimes committed against Parsons, criminal acts that already have laws on the books to address them. Parsons was allegedly gang-raped and harassed by her rapists. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police conducted a yearlong investigation into the case but ultimately decided there was a lack of sufficient evidence to pursue rape charges. (Conversely, activist "group" Anonymous claimed to have solved the case in two hours, using a variety of gathered information, including the EXIF data that the RCMP seemingly overlooked.)

Rather belatedly, the RCMP HAS decided to pursue child pornography charges against two of the alleged assailants, but this will be of little comfort to Parsons' family. Unfortunately, this new law (the "Cyber Safety Act" or Bill 61) won't do much to address the sort of criminal behavior Parsons suffered through. Instead, the bill will likely end up "making bullies of us all," according to Jessie Brown at MacLean's.
Rape, assault, harassment: these are crimes with established parameters. All of them could also be called “bullying.” They could also be described as “mean,” and I suppose we could enact a law against being mean. But I’d rather have laws against specific crimes, rather than against vast swaths of vaguely defined human behaviour. Ultimately, bullying is in the eye of the bullied.
Here's where these laws fall apart. Instead of an objective standard, the accused are held to a subjective standard, one applied by the accuser and enforced by the law. Where most criminal activities are clearly defined by certain actions, cyberbullying (and regular bullying) have no clear definition.

The bill works this way: an accuser files a claim with the court, requesting a protection order against the accused. A judge decides whether the behavior detailed meets the definition of "cyberbullying" set by this law. The definition of cyerbullying is broad and vague, the end result of overly-cautious lawmakers addressing a problem with no clear boundaries and doing so under the self-imposed pressure of needing to "do something."
The definition of cyberbullying, in this particular bill, includes “any electronic communication” that ”ought reasonably be expected” to “humiliate” another person, or harm their “emotional well-being, self-esteem or reputation.”

If this is the standard, I don’t know a person who isn’t a cyberbully.
Here's what can happen to the accused should the judge grant the protection order. (This process, by the way, occurs without any input from the accused -- it's solely between the judge and accuser.)
  • The police can seize your computers and phone.
  • Your Internet connection can be shut off.
  • You can be ordered to stop using electronic devices entirely.
  • Your Internet Service Provider or Internet companies, such as Facebook, can be compelled to fork over all your data to the police.
  • You can be gagged by the court and prohibited from mentioning your accuser online.
  • If you violate any of these orders, you’ll face stiff fines and up to two years of jail time. At this point, your accuser can sue you in civil court.
So, the law basically makes it possible for anyone's unfortunate online comments to result in a civil suit or a prison sentence. The process isn't adversarial at any point where some input or context might make a difference. Presumably, the accused can defend themselves once in civil court, but that will only mitigate the damages without having any effect on previous criminal charges or punishments already enacted.

Even worse, the law opens up parents to be targeted by civil suits for the bullying activities of their children and pushes school administrators to enact zero-tolerance policies backed by mandatory suspensions for bullying behavior -- even if it occurs off-campus. While there's something to be said for forcing parents to take responsibilities for the actions of their children, in practice this becomes nothing more than presenting parents as a "soft target" for civil suits, allowing the accuser to bypass the accused entirely if success against the parents seems more promising.

Responding to a bullying incident by lowering the bar and raising the consequences is completely the wrong answer, no matter how tragic the incident. This new law has the potential to criminalize plenty of non-bullying activity and may actually encourage abuse by anyone who sees the possibilities provided by the law's unintended consequences -- an easy route to shut down and prosecute anyone who irritates them in any way.

Filed Under: cyberbullying, free speech, nova scotia, rehtaeh parsons


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  1. identicon
    The Real Michael, 14 Aug 2013 @ 5:04pm

    The Constitution protects free speech by preventing the government from creating laws which may affect it. Nowhere does it state that you're protected FROM speech, much less that the state is there to protect your feelings.

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