Playing on tragedy: the cyberbullying dilemma and Bill C-13

Warning: this post contains potentially triggering content and coarse language.

Five years ago Sarah*  turned on her phone to find a frantic email from a friend: Where are you? I have been trying to reach you. You need to message me ASAP. We have a problem.

It was her first week at the University of Guelph Humber, and she had just finished one of her classes. Sarah quickly got into her car and drove to her home in Brampton, Ont. All the way there, she felt anxious: what could warrant such panic?

Her computer was pinging with Instant Messages—her friend had desperately been trying to contact her all day.

A URL was hidden within the strew of question marks and exclamation points. With dread, Sarah hovered over the link for a moment, wondering what she would find when she finally clicked it.  Her worst fears were realized when a revenge porn site popped up. On it were five pictures of her posing in a pink bikini. The picture cut just below her nose so that her face was not visible, but she recognized her tattoo and naval piercing. It was absolutely her.

In her senior year of high school, Sarah snapped a couple pictures of herself scantily clad and sent them to her boyfriend at the time. She never thought about the photographs again until that day. “He was not as good a person as I thought he was,” she would later say.

Sarah sat in front of the computer for a few minutes, scrolling down the site. Maybe, she thought, if she stared at the screen long enough, the pictures would just go away. Frozen, unable to move, all she was able to do is sit in front of the images and think, “What can I do to fix this.” Beside her photo was all of her personal information—her name, Facebook, and the school she went to. Hundreds of people left sexually violent comments below her picture: “I know where that school is. Why don’t we go down there and teach her a lesson.” “I know where this bitch is at, lets go fuck her up.”

“You don’t feel safe,” she said over the phone from London, Ont., where she is now completing her Masters of Journalism at the University of Western Ontario. “I couldn’t concentrate in class. I was worried someone was going to grab me or pull me aside.” Her photograph was up on the website for three weeks before she was able to convince the owners of the site the photos were taken before she had turned 18. She spent hours every day on the computer, emailing the general inquiry lines explaining that she was underage and that the photographs could be considered child pornography. The photographs were eventually removed.

Sarah still has a Google Alert set with her name, and experiences anxiety attacks every time someone mentions they saw her name online. “A thing like that, you don’t truly recover,” she said. The incident changed the way she saw people. She didn’t trust them anymore.

Sarah never did get an actual response from the website. She never went to the police or told a teacher. And to this day her parents don’t know this story.

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IT HAS NOW been a year since 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons was found dead in her parent’s bathroom in Dartmouth, N.S. It all began at a party in 2011, where Rehtaeh consumed a large amount of vodka. Four teenage boys at the party allegedly raped her and took photographs of the incident. Within three days the photos had spread throughout the town. She was called a slut by her classmates, and was shunned by friends. “She was never left alone. Her friends turned against her, people harassed her, boys she didn’t know started texting her on Facebooking asking her to have sex with them since she had had sex with their friends. It just never stopped,” her mother, Leah Parsons, told CBC News two days after her daughter had passed away.

Rehtaeh moved schools twice in order to get away from her bullies. She struggled emotionally, eventually becoming severely depressed. The investigation into the rape was called a “he said, she said” by the police and, due to lack of evidence, the case was closed. On the evening of April 4, 2013 Rehtaeh locked herself in the bathroom and tried to hang herself. Her suicide attempt left her in a comma.

She was taken off life support on April 7. On April 12, the RCMP had announced that Rehtaeh’s case was being reopened in light of “new and credible information.”

Six months before Rehtaeh’s death there was 15-year-old Amanda Todd from Port Coquitlam, B.C, whose death was marked by a Youtube video in which she delivers her own eulogy using hand-written flashcards. The flashcards tell the story of a young girl who met a man online. One day, the man asked Amanda to expose her breasts. She did. For two years afterwards, Amanda was the target of extortion. She was told if she did not put on a show for him via webcam, he would send a screenshot of her breasts to her entire school.

It was four in the morning when Amanda and her father heard a knock at their door. It was the police. The photo of Amanda, exposed and unfiltered, had been sent to everyone she knew. Amanda changed schools numerous times, but no matter where she went, her past followed her. The man—who in April was allegedly identified as 35-year-old Aydin Coban from Holland—created a Facebook page with her breasts as his profile picture. Her classmates called her names like “camwhore” and “porn star.” When she was publicly humiliated and beat up in front of her new school, she drank bleach. Her Facebook erupted with horrible messages: “She deserves it”; “I hope she dies”; “Did you wash the mud out of your hair?”

On October 10, 2012, she hung herself. Coban is being charged with a series of offences, including extortion, Internet luring, criminal harassment, and possessing child pornography. At least 10 of the cases included Canadians other than Amanda Todd.

These two cases elicited strong emotional reaction from people across the country. Parents demanded the government do something to alleviate their heartbreak and to ensure that no other child has to suffer needlessly at the hands of a computer screen and  keyboard.

In the Throne Speech, Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to “introduce legislation giving police and prosecutors new tools to effectively address cyberbullying that involves criminal invasion of privacy, intimidation and personal abuse.” In November 2013 he fulfilled that promise, and, to many Canadians, it seemed like the government had responded to their call to arms. On Nov. 20, Justice Minister Peter MacKay stood in the House of Commons with families of kids who had been cyberbullied to introduce a new piece of legislation. Bill C-13, or the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, would amend the Criminal Code to include a section on cyberbullying, specifically making it illegal to distribute explicit images on the Internet without the consent of the subject. Anyone who knowingly contributes to this distribution—whether through the sending of the photo via a text, email, or posting it on the social media—can be subject to jail time and severe fines.

But, this seemingly heroic response to the tragic death of two young teenagers was only reflected in two pages of the now infamous Bill C-13. The other 68 pages dealt with enforcement. Hidden within a bill meant to protect children from online predators is a piece of legislation that would provide police with more powers over the digital world.

This was the bill the government really wanted to pass.

It was an act of opportunity. The government capitalized on the pain these families felt—the heartbreak and the tragedy—and created a policing bill that could be passed with much less debate.

The bill focuses on explicit images, and fails to comment on the many other factors involved in cyberbullying.  According to an emailed statement from Josée Picard, spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety, the government chose to focus on explicit images because a 2013 report identified it as a gap in the country’s criminal law. “Like the existing voyeurism offence, the purpose of this offence is to protect the privacy that a person has in his or her nudity.”

As part of their national campaign, the Government of Canada defines cyberbullying as the act of humiliating, embarrassing, or threatening another person using a technological device like a computer or a cellphone. This includes the receiving of messages or texts, the spreading of rumours, the distribution of intimate or embarrassing pictures, and the hacking of email accounts.

Instead of creating an all-encompassing piece of legislation that would address all aspects of cyberbullying, the government chose to focus on one small aspect of a larger problem in order to push forward their own agenda.

Robert Chisholm, the NDP Member of Parliament from Dartmouth, N.S., where Rehtaeh is from, has often spoken out against the bill, saying it is a much more complicated piece of legislation than was originally recommended. A month before MacKay announced Bill C-13, Chisholm put forward Bill C-540, a two-page document that would have amended the Criminal Code without the police enforcement attachments. It was tabled after the first reading.

This new bill, according to Chisholm, is much more complex. “The government is doing what they’ve done on a number of issues, and that is cloak the bill,” he explained. “They were basically using the issue [of cyberbullying] and the emotions surrounding it to camouflage all this other stuff they were trying to get through.

“And then if you vote against it, they can say that you are against trying to stop the damaging impact of non-consensual distribution of intimate images.”

After a few months of criticism, the government decided to solidify their position. In early January, MacKay announced a new campaign funded by the government to help educate and inform youth about the consequences of cyberbullying. The campaign—called Stop Hating Online—includes $4 million of television and online advertising. The website GetCyberSafe.gc.ca has information for parents and youth about how to deal with cyberbullying. The advertisements, which all show an image labelled “Jack’s girlfriend’ being texted and emailed between friends, are displayed on public transportation vehicles as well as on social media sites. The advertisements make a point to say that youth should think twice before they spread explicit images, because it could be illegal.

The focus on explicit images will make it difficult for the government’s efforts to have any real affect on cyberbullying. “I think it’s going to be extremely hard for the government. I mean, you can spread awareness as much as you want, but I think the reason why cyberbullying happens is that I don’t think people understand that a lot of what they do is cyberbullying,” Sarah said.

At the end of our interview we talked about the big cyberbullying cases: Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd. She sighed for a moment, reflecting on these unfathomable deaths. Then said quietly, “that could have been me.”

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“I’m so sorry about what happened to you.”

That is the first thing 12-year-old Grace McCluskey heard when she got to school on Monday, Feb. 10, 2014. She had no idea what her friends were talking about until she was shown an Instagram account with the name “hey_gracie_is_a_loser.” On the account were a number of headshots of Grace, each seemingly taken in her kitchen at home. In one image, her blue eyes were wide and her lips pursed in a typical “fish face” pose. They were the type of photos a young girl would take in a world dominated by selfies.

GracieBeneath the photos were violent comments:

“OMG fucking kill yourself.”

“God my eyes are melting.”

“Go die in a hole you hoe. She’s just an ugly piece of shit.”

Grace was shocked. “I didn’t know someone hated me that much,” she said. Her mother, Catherine Kieran, got a phone call around 11:20 a.m. after one of Grace’s friends had reported the account to the principal. Kieran spent a few minutes on the phone walking the principal through taking a screenshot with her IPhone, because she knew there was a possibility the bully could change the comments or delete the photo. Afterwards, she went straight to the RCMP office in Cole Harbour, Halifax, and they dispatched a constable to the school.

By 12:45 p.m. the entire account had been deleted.

The RCMP officer said there was absolutely nothing they could do since the messages were not considered threatening. They told Kieran that if the account had said “I’m going to kill Grace,” then they would have a case to work with. Telling Grace to kill herself is not, technically, a threat. After hearing this, Kieran became angry. This was clearly an instance of cyberbullying and a pronoun should not prevent a police investigation. She just kept thinking:  “This is my baby. Why is this allowed to happen?”

Kieran was told by the RCMP that they didn’t have the resources to investigate a case like this—that the laws had not caught up with technology. CyberScan, an investigative unit created in light of Rehtaeh’s death, conducted two rounds of interviews with students and parents from Grace’s school and tried to contact Facebook to discover the identity of the person who created the Instagram account. They were unable to find the bully, and the investigation was officially closed in early April.

Grace’s experience is not unique. Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, Snapchat—social media is continuously evolving, and with it opportunities to torment people online. A 2013 survey by Statistics Canada shows the most common form of cyberbullying is the use of threatening or aggressive emails or instant messages. Of the respondents, 73 per cent of victims say they were harassed using these methods. Only two per cent of adult respondents indicated that their child had been sexually exploited or solicited.

“Preventing the decimation of intimate images is really important, but then there is this other side,” Kieran said. “There were no intimate images of Grace being disseminated, but she was still cyberbullied and from what we are being told there is not much being done about that.”

This is the new information age, where everything can be found with the touch of a button or the download of an app. Despite having endured online torment and embarrassment, Grace has no problem using social media. During our preliminary Skype interview, she sat there and played around with her phone, taking selfies with her mom to post on Snapchat, a social media site that allows for the instantaneous sharing of photographs. Her demeanour hadn’t changed after a month. I asked her if she still used Instagram, and the answer was a resounding yes. “Yeah, I was just on it,” she said. “I’m not going to let that stop me from doing what I want to do.”

Roger Merrick has led the Internet Child Exploitation Unit for the Department of Justice in Nova Scotia. He is also the director of CyberScan. Throughout his experience he has witnessed how people use social media to harm and embarrass others, and he is under no illusion it’s going to change. “People have embraced social media and that is the way it is. But, in doing so, I think people need to use social media responsibly,” he says. “I think people need to be held accountable if they harm others by social media.”

But Tanesha Darby, a teen facilitator at the Teens Educating Confronting Homophobia program with Planned Parenthood, does not believe the government can enforce this type of social media responsibility without infringing on individual privacy. “There is really no way to prevent cyberbullying without actually compromising people’s rights to be anonymous,” she said. And she isn’t the only one who thinks so.

A lot of the criticism surrounding Bill C-13 revolves around the 68 pages that deal with enforcement, including the ability to seize computers, phones, and other devices with a court order. It also provides telecom companies with immunity for handing over the private information of their customers, as it relates to potential incidents of cyberbullying, to authorities without a warrant. All the authorities need to do is show they suspect a subscriber of distributing explicit images.

These aren’t new concepts, and in fact, they have been introduced in the House before. Bill C-30, the Protecting Children from Online Predators Act, was introduced in the House in 2012, but was withdrawn due to its controversial content. Inside this bill were conditions that would grant authorities permission to track and monitor the digital activities of Canadians. This new cyberbullying legislation takes most of the content from that original bill and slides it into an amendment of the Criminal Code. David Christopher, communications manager of OpenMedia.ca, a coalition of organizations that advocate for open Internet use, says “its like the minister is to scared to put this online spying bill out on its merits, so he is trying to smuggle it through under the guise of tackling this major issue.”

Without amending the Criminal Code, much of what is considered cyberbullying is actually illegal. Extortion, harassment, threats, and the making or distribution of child pornography are still considered criminal behaviour. What makes Bill C-13 different from these previous charges is that it applies to everyone. No matter your age, you would be protected by this piece of legislation. This is especially important for young adults who would not have been covered under child pornography laws.

But this aspect of the bill hasn’t been publicized. The Stop Hating Online campaign focuses solely on the circulation of images of children. Picard, spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety, reasoned this by saying, “bullying and cyberbullying can have a devastating impact on their victims and can be particularly harmful to youth.” Despite the fact that Bill C-13 is meant to protect people of all ages, the government focused on children, a demographic that automatically generates compassion. People are less inclined to feel sorry for a young adult who makes a rash decision or is caught in a sexual encounter.

Yet, no one can say the basic principle behind criminalizing the non-consensual distribution of explicit images is a bad thing. Carol Todd wrote a column for the Huffington Post advocating for this piece of legislation, saying it is “needed to save kids.” Even Sarah, whose explicit photograph did not garner the same high-profile reactions as Todd or Parsons, agreed it was a step in the right direction. “I would rather have the government infringing on my privacy rights than have another 10 cases of Rehtaeh Parsons or Amanda Todd.” Of course, no one could reasonably argue against this type of statement—which is what makes Bill C-13 highly effective.

On March 26, 2014,  a time allocation was tacked on to the bill. This means that debate was restricted to a single day the next time Bill C-13 arrived on the House floor. “It is frustrating,” said Chisholm. “It is a complicated bill and we should debate it.

Bill C-13 is currently going through the third and final reading in the Senate. It passed unanimously, and quietly, through the Senate Committee on October 20.

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Sarah has been actively involved in youth anti-bullying campaigns since her incident five years ago. She worked at a youth-run non-profit called Allowing Children a Chance at Education, or ACCESS, in Brampton, Ont., and as a journalist, she often puts together radio stories that have to do with bullying, just to bring attention to the issue. “That stuff really hits home.”

With every new social media site and every new technological advance, we are opening ourselves up to potential dangers. First it was the chatroom, which allowed grown men and women to communicate with young children under false identities. Then, it was Facebook, where youth were encouraged to post photos and videos of themselves for everyone to see. Now, there is Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, and Pintrest. Nothing will ever be truly private. “From the moment you are born to the moment you go, everything you do has some sort of permanence. Every picture you take; every video you make; every file you save,” Sarah says. This permanence is what leads people, youth especially, to feel like there is no escape. For Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons, their cyberbullies followed them wherever they went.

Sarah is under no illusions. Even though her photo was removed from the porn website, it may still be out there. Somewhere and someday, the photo may re-emerge, and she honestly doesn’t know what she would do if it did.

 

*Name has been altered to protect the identity of the victim.

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