Look back to look ahead

Vic-20…Commodore 64…Windows 95…feeling nostalgic, yet? It is hard to imagine a time when the likes of Bill Gates couldn’t even fathom a computer being as common as any household appliance or that governments would be passing laws to prevent things like cyberbullying? Back then, I was just happy to find what I was looking for on my Encarta multimedia encyclopedia (yes, there will be plenty of these references as we go along).

With Alberta working its way toward passing Bill 202, also known as the “Protecting Victims of Non-Consensual Distribution of Intimate Images Act” (whew, I would have gone through a lot of White-Out if I had had to type that on a typewriter), the way Canada deals with the issue of cyberbullying is taking on a new shape as we continue to build upon pre-existing Federal laws.

Bill C-13 was first introduced in November, 2013 and came into effect in March, 2015 with the intent of combating “online harassment by making it illegal to distribute intimate images of a person without their consent”. So, case closed, right? Well, this is where it gets a little complicated. To understand it, we first need to recognize some of the specifics of civil law and criminal law as they pertain to cyberbullying and how implementation of these laws can differ across the country (I can hear you snoring already but stick with me).

In civil law, there already exists protection from defamation, or rather, slander and libel. Basically, slander is spoken and not recorded while libel is written down and more permanent. These cases tend to be hard to prove and penalties tend not to be particularly severe.

In criminal law, again, there are two categories: harassment and defamatory libel. Wait. What? Yeah, that’s right. Never let it be said our lawmakers let good words go underused. Much like trying to load a computer program from punched cards, trying to understand the criminal law behind cyberbullying can get technical, messy, confusing and take way more time than most people have. And penalties can vary widely from a small fine to imprisonment depending on how the court balances principles like freedom of expression against the right to life, liberty and security.

As of 2015, only six provinces had their own anti-cyberbullying laws but depending on the province, those laws can take very different forms. Most of these provinces have left it to the individual school boards to police this activity, with little to no specific laws addressing cases involving violations between adults. Meanwhile, the Canadian Bar Association is still describing it as a “type of harassment using new technology.”

New technology? I am pretty sure we already established a baseline for nostalgia when it comes to computers and the Internet. How can this still be considered new? Officially, the 90’s brought us what we now know as the world wide web; the same year that introduced the world to the Hubble Telescope…you wouldn’t call that new. And therein lies the problem. For a tool that has been around for as long as the Internet, our capacity to legislate for it, interact with it and defend against it is less than inspiring.

Robert Browning could just as easily have been talking about the Internet when he spoke of our reach exceeding our grasp. Kind of makes you yearn for your old Apple Macintosh computer.

Referenced web sites:

Anti-cyberbullying law, Bill C-13, now in effect

Cyberbullying Laws in Canada

What are the potential legal consequences of cyberbullying?

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