As we search for answers about the suicide deaths of Rehtaeh Parsons, Amanda Todd and an unknown number of other adolescents who ended their suffering in silence, there is a natural impulse to beef up the criminal law.
Yet the law is already strong when it comes to cyberrelated offences. Potential charges include criminal harassment, uttering threats, intimidation, voyeurism and making or distributing child pornography. Still, minor legislative tweaks would be helpful; so would a willingness to clear up some stubborn misperceptions.
The first of these is the word “cyberbullying,” a benign, catch-all that belittles much of the torment that goes on in cyberspace. Words have power. Our terminology must advance to capture the horrendous toll caused by vile threats, the malicious distribution of intimate photographs and cruel incitements to the vulnerable to do themselves harm.
Nor is the problem confined to youth. The cruelty of those who seek revenge on ex-partners, business rivals or estranged relatives has no age barrier.
We face a unique foe: a technology that is all-pervasive, often anonymous, impossible to ignore. Punishing those who abuse it requires both resolve and action on many fronts.
Police and the Crown must act with all haste to train specialist investigators and prosecutors. Police investigators have to know their way around the Internet and be cognizant of what is needed to obtain convictions.
Ontario, which led the way in developing gun and gangs specialists, is training prosecutors to combat crimes of computerized sexual and domestic violence. They are also at the ready to advise police. Every jurisdiction that is not already taking these measures should follow suit.
Parliament must take a second look at a private member’s bill sponsored by the Liberal MP Hedy Fry, which faded away recently. Broadly supported by police and teachers, it would have embedded the use and abuse of computers in existing laws designed to combat intimidation, threatening and harassment.
The Law Reform of Commission of Canada, foolishly disbanded a decade ago, would surely have come up with legislative fixes. However, it is not too late to catch up. Federal, provincial and territorial governments agreed last October to work to identify legislative gaps. They must set an aggressive timetable.
Finally, we need grassroots groups to emerge with an astute agenda for conquering adolescent complacency and raising the profile of cyberviolence. Organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving once transformed public consciousness about drunk driving; they forced governments and police to act. Similar efforts are needed now.