A lack of physical interaction makes it hard to judge the effects of online harassment

In the Speech from the Throne earlier this month, Governor General David Johnston included a promise that the Conservative government will take a new, tougher stance against cyberbullying. The forthcoming legislation is a small part of the government’s new initiative to “restore victims to their rightful place at the heart of our justice system.” This promise comes in reaction to a recent slew of deaths among young Canadians, who took their own lives after enduring various kinds of online attacks and harassment. It also raises some questions about the preparedness of current governments to address the new problems posed by the Internet.

There is a vague pronouncement making the rounds that the rights of criminals in Canada are out of hand. In response to the heartbreaking stories of teens driven to suicide after online harassment, some are arguing that the tried and true method of “innocent until proven guilty” places undue stress on victims waiting for resolution. The voicing of this public sentiment was particularly loud in the case of Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17-year-old girl from Nova Scotia who was driven to suicide after photos of her sexual assualt were distributed over the web. Having to manage not only the scarring aftermath of a physical crime, but also the persistent bullying by her peers ultimately resulted in the young girl’s death.

After scattered details of the events leading to the teenage girl’s death were revealed, it became clear that her harassers had not been brought to justice immediately. The perceived lethargy of Canada’s judicial system led the online activist group Anonymous to promote vigilante justice where state-controlled justice had failed. Anonymous located those involved in her alleged rape and harassment and threatened to post their whereabouts online.

The anger over the mishandling of Parsons’ case led to the swift passing of stricter cyberbullying protections in the Nova Scotia legislature: victims can now identify and sue their online attackers, or their parents if the offender is a minor. This measure was lauded by Parsons’ father as a “step in the right direction.”

A common analogy compares the Internet to the Wild West; the web is a new frontier in which lawlessness is a result of rapid expansion. Governments simply cannot keep up with the dynamism of the internet. For every new social media application available, there is a new opportunity to abuse others. Unknown territory, though, has, can, and will be reined in by the laws which have been effective in the governing of normal human society. The recent forced closure of Silk Road, a kind of illicit Craigslist where hit men could be contracted and drugs purchased, demonstrates the extension of established legal precedents to the digital domain.

The non-physical aspect of the Internet is where legislation becomes more complicated. While harassment, bullying, and other crimes used to take place in a physical space where harm is easier to identify, they have now shifted online. The dynamism of the Internet makes tracking these events and their effects very difficult for law enforcment. Harassing messages can be delivered anonymously, bullying becomes more of a social activity, getting worse every time someone new clicks the “like” button on an embarassing photo or mean status.

Laws that allow for the identification and suing of injuring parties will not prevent stories like that of Rehtaeh Parsons. Possible federal laws mandating prison terms for the worst offenders will not be preventative or even particularly restorative. When we bully online, we do not see the face of the victim, and so have no means to contemplate their injury or the possible consequences. Hurt and punishment have a physical dimension which typing nastiness into a glowing box does not incorporate and so we need more radical ways of considering internet governance. The tattoo down the arm of Rehtaeh Parsons roughly translated to “strength and a brave air.” What better service to her memory than adopting that spirit as we come into the age that will determine how online society is shaped. Putting the victim at the heart of the justice system will take time, but matters of the heart often do.


Carter West is a fourth-year student at the University of Toronto.

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