Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Online attacks are crimes

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper has usefully reminded Canadians that Rehtaeh Parsons was a victim of criminal activity, and not merely the unfortunate target of a bullying campaign by her fellow students.

The prime minister now needs to go one step further and update the Criminal Code and the penalties for perpetrators who use the Internet to distribute obscene or harassing material. Then the provinces must direct their Crown attorneys and police departments to begin charging and prosecuting people.

That is the only way to drive home the message that inappropriate use of technology has serious consequences.

Rehtaeh's case has sparked a new round of hand-wringing about the problem of bullying in schools, but the case is not about teasing or name-calling. As Mr. Harper said, it's about criminal activity.

Rehtaeh, just 17, took her own life following nearly two years of online criminal harassment, which every report, by the way, has incorrectly called bullying. At age 15, the Nova Scotia girl had allegedly been raped by four boys following a night of heaving drinking. A photo of the crime was snapped, and then distributed online, sparking a relentless and brutal series of crude and obscene comments about her sexual habits.

Rape charges were not laid because of insufficient evidence, although Nova Scotia's government has ordered an extensive internal review to determine the facts. Depending on the outcome of that review, a public inquiry might be in order.

Nor have charges been laid against the person or persons who distributed the photo of the crime, but, again, the reasons aren't presently clear.

There are at least two possible charges related to the online harassment that could be filed if a suspect was identified, including criminal harassment and distribution of obscene material.

The distribution of the photo certainly seems to fit the criminal definition of obscenity, but criminal harassment usually involves direct contact between a victim and a perpetrator, which might not apply in this case. In any event, the law ought to be amended to include the distribution of photos or text, whether of a sexual nature or not, that threatens a person's safety.

The civil courts are another remedy, but ultimately only direct legal action will serve as a meaningful deterrent.

Educating young people about responsible use of technology is still a worthwhile goal, but this is not a new issue and schools have been talking to their students about the problem for years. It's time to do more than talk about bullying.

Ultimately, all the lessons learned in school won't make a difference if they aren't backed up by the justice system.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2013 0

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