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Hon. Irwin Cotler: Debate on Bill C-273 – An act to amend the Criminal Code in relation to cyberbullying

Posted on April 26, 2012

Hon. Irwin Cotler (Mount Royal, Lib.):
Le 24 avril 2012

Mr. Speaker, I rise to speak to Bill C-273, an act to amend the Criminal Code in relation to cyberbullying.

As my colleagues have noted in the debate thus far, Bill C-273 would amend the Criminal Code to broaden the scope of crimes constituting criminal harassment, defamatory libel and false messaging. My colleague, the member for Vancouver Centre, has explained the definitions with respect to each of these crimes. The current law provides, for example, that an individual is libel for false messaging if he or she deliberately spreads false information through the mediums of letter, telegram, telephone, cable, radio and the like. However, there is no provision that prohibits false messaging through the newest and most widely used medium, the Internet.

Before I proceed any further, I want to commend the hard work of my colleague, the member for Vancouver Centre, and her remarkable foresight in bringing this matter to public attention years ago and for her ongoing dedication to rectifying what is certainly a vital issue in our increasingly technologically-oriented Internet society.

With the proliferation of potential uses and abuses of the Internet, the crime of Internet harassment presents challenges for law enforcement personnel, legislators, educators, parents and the like. Indeed, given its immediacy, anonymity and accessibility, the Internet offers a forum, through social networking sites and the like, for harassment and other social ills committed against minors.

Accordingly, Bill C-273 is an important step in the right direction as the current legislation does not adequately protect Canadians and, in particular, young persons from such online abuse.

In 2009, Professors Faye Mishna and Robert MacFadden from the University of Toronto undertook a survey of roughly 2,200 students from 33 schools in the greater Toronto area in order to gauge the effects of cyberbullying. The results were alarming. They determined that over 50% of the students had been bullied online and that the bulk of cyberbullying occurred between students who attended the same school and knew each other in person. More important, the results revealed that individuals who would tend not to bully others face to face would be far more likely to engage in bullying over the Internet.

Professor Qing Li from the University of Calgary found that, as a result of the impersonal nature of the Internet, whereby we do not experience the same feelings of regret or shame that come hand-in-hand with personal interaction, not only are more people likely to engage in cyberbullying, but those who do so feel that they can say whatever they want without any fear of repercussion or sanction. Simply put, the ability to cloak oneself in the shadows of cyberspace removes barriers, decreases the likelihood of punishment and, thus, results in more bullying and more victims.

In a word, the veil of separation, distance and anonymity that the Internet provides has amplified the problem of bullying simply by expanding the arena of threat far wider than the public sphere to which it was once confined. Indeed, children who are victims of cyberbullying can no longer even seek refuge in the comfort of their own homes.

Addressing cyberbullying is an issue of the utmost importance, as has been set forth in the comments this evening. Protecting our youth is one of the most vital responsibilities that not only we as parliamentarians but society as a whole share: protecting, in effect, the most vulnerable among us. When I was minister of justice, the first piece of legislation that I tabled before the House at the time was a bill to protect children and other vulnerable persons. The bill then sought, as we do now, to provide protection for those who are the victims of such hateful and harmful crime.

Unfortunately, it is not always the case that legislation, criminal law in particular, is able to keep pace with the technological developments in our society. As I have said elsewhere, while science races, the law lags and very often the scientists beat the lawyers. The lack of comprehensive legislation in this regard, coupled with the lack of consequences for online bullies, only further enables cyberbullying by incentivizing online abuse as an alternative to physical bullying.

In 2009, Statistics Canada reported that eight out of ten Canadian households owned a computer and had access to the Internet and that the number of Canadian Internet users was increasing.

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A recent study by comScore found that Canada continues to lead the world in online engagement, with visitors spending an average of 45 hours per month online.

The statistics about cyberbullying are particularly troubling and I do not wish to repeat many of the numbers we have heard this evening. I want to focus on two high-profile cases that arose from the U.S. and illustrate quite vividly the problem that this legislation seeks to address.

The first is the tragic case of Megan Meier, a 13-year-old Missouri girl who committed suicide as a result of cyberbullying. What is so shocking about Megan’s case is that the bullying was not at the hands of one of her peers but was committed by an adult. In that case, the mother of a former friend of Megans set up a fake Myspace page pretending to be a boy, Josh, who had just moved to the area and was home-schooled. Within a few weeks of Megan becoming friends with this Josh and communicating extensively online with him, the tone of his messages dramatically changed, Eventually, Megan hung herself in the closet. While the mother who orchestrated the fake account was acquitted of murder, the case sparked numerous U.S. states and Congress to consider changing their statutes. The bill before us, Bill C-273, does not limit its application to young offenders.

Another high-profile case, mentioned earlier in discussion by the member for Vancouver Centre, was that of Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who committed suicide in 2010 by jumping from the George Washington Bridge. Members may recall it at the time. It was later revealed that Clementi’s roommate secretly filmed Clementi’s sexual encounter with another man and broadcast it on the Internet without anyone’s knowledge. Clementi, who had not yet made his sexual orientation public, took his own life in consequence.

We see, through troubling incidents such as these and others that have been described in debate this evening, that cyberbullying is real and can have devastating consequences. Parliament needs to act to adopt this legislation but parents and legislators must also intervene to denounce cyberbullying and discuss appropriate technology use with our children. While this legislation cannot, in and of itself, prevent cyberbullying, it can deter and dissuade people from it, as well as sanction those engaged in it, something that the current law does not provide.

In the time remaining, I will briefly discuss a few particular concerns that might form the basis for some discussion in committee and potential amendment. Some reference has already been made to this regard.

The first is that there is a lack of uniformity in the terms surrounding the problem, be it cyberbullying, cyberharassment or cyberstalking and the like, or any such variation thereupon. The proposal before us uses none of these but it may be useful to define such terms for greater clarity.

Second is something that is difficult to address. There is the question of the jurisdictional limits and the anonymity of the Internet. As we have observed, even with our own House investigation into threats made by the group Anonymous, it can be difficult for law enforcement personnel to identify, locate, arrest and prosecute alleged offenders.

Third is the issue of harm, as some argue that cyberbullying has only emotional consequences, unlike the physical scars that may result from traditional bullying. Certainly both are problematic and must be addressed and redressed but it may be that online activity requires different wording than what is presently in the Criminal Code. I look forward to submissions in that regard as well.

This bill is a necessary addition to our criminal law to address the ever-growing problem of harassment over the Internet by text message and the like. I look forward to its deliberation in committee and its subsequent passage through the House.

This is but the start of a larger dialogue that we need to engage in as a nation with respect to trying to determine the ethical limits of the conduct and misconduct and the related and appropriate use of technology, as we as parents are now forced to tackle issues that were inconceivable when we were children. I am sure I speak for many of my colleagues when I express the hope that the society which we build should seek to be one in which our children are not targets of harassment and abuse either in person or online.

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