Turning inner space into outer space

February 27, 2016

Better legislation needed to deal with online harassment

In recent weeks, the phrase “reasonable fear” has become controversial in Canada. That’s because it is held as a standard in criminal harassment cases.

In Ontario, a man was brought to trial on a charge of harassing two women via Twitter. There was no doubt that the language he used was vile and hurtful. But because the women responded in kind, the judge ruled that they while they may have been concerned or annoyed, they could not be said to be fearful.

It’s an interesting ruling because it places “reasonable fear” in context. There is no hard and fast definition.

But it could also mean that people being harassed online will be afraid to stand up to bullies. It appears that fighting back is all it takes to get them off the hook.

In B.C., charges were considered against a man who created a website with the stated goal of ruining his ex-wife’s reputation. On the surface this seems to be blatant case of harassment, but charges were not approved in part because the couple involved live in two different countries — Canada and the United States.

The thinking here appears to be that the woman should have no fear of physical harm because of the distance between them. If that’s the way the law is being interpreted, then it needs to be changed. Psychological harm needs to be taken into account.

Canada recently passed legislation aimed at cyberbullying that makes it against the law to distribute someone’s image without their consent. I’m not sure why it doesn’t apply in this case. Clearly, the ex-wife did not consent to having her pictures on the revenge site.

West Coast LEAF, a legal support group for women based in Vancouver, advocates extending the law to criminalize hate speech against women. The group says that 90 per cent of online bullying is aimed at women and girls, and has coined the term cybermisogyny to describe this behaviour.

They also advocate giving judges the power to make orders to protect victims from ongoing harassment. That kind of power might have simplified how authorities dealt with the revenge site — a judge could simply have ordered that it be taken down, at least as an interim measure.

We can’t ignore situations like this. Online communication has become an integral part of our lives, and we need to ensure that it is used safely and responsibly. There is nothing special about the Internet that allows it to be used in ways that would be otherwise unacceptable.