Law as an ally or enemy in the war on cyberbullying: exploring the contested terrain of privacy and other legal concepts in the age of technology and social media.

Author:MacKay, A. Wayne
Position::Canada - An Update in the Law of Privacy
 
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1. Introduction: Law and Social Problems

Laws should provide at least one route to solving social problems. That is not to suggest that laws are the only or even the best, response to many of Canada's complex social problems. Indeed, laws can sometimes impede rather than advance a constructive response to a particular problem. History provides many examples of laws being used to buttress the status quo, rather than promote change. Furthermore, complex social problems usually require a multi-tiered response, including education, prevention strategies and other "softer" responses, as well as the iron fist of the law. Law is often a blunt instrument. These reservations about the role of law as an agent of social change apply to the pervasive and perplexing problem of cyberbullying.

Whether law will be primarily an ally or an enemy in the war on cyberbullying is the central question that permeates this article. Responding to this question is complicated by the novelty and the multi-faceted nature of the cyberbullying problem. There is no doubt that legal responses must be paired with educational initiatives, prevention strategies and attitude changing communications, at all levels. A possible analogy could be the war on drunk driving, where harsher and more effective laws were one part of an orchestrated campaign to change social attitudes about drinking and driving.

Because it is so important to understand the magnitude and dimensions of the problem, the next two Parts will address this task. Any effective response must address the fact that cyberbullying at its core is about unhealthy relationships. The question is how best to improve them. It is beyond the scope of this article to explore non- legal responses such as education, prevention and communication strategies, issues which will be explored by others, including my former student and friend, Hannah Choo, who is also contributing to this volume. My focus will be on the role and limits of law as a response to cyberbullying.

The problem of cyberbullying engages many of our most fundamental legal concepts and provides an interesting case study. Even when there is general agreement that the problem merits a legal response, there are significant debates about what that response should be. Which level and what branch of government can and should best respond? What is the most appropriate legal process for pursuing cyberbullies-- traditional legal avenues or more creative restorative approaches? How should the rights and responsibilities of perpetrators, victims and even bystanders be balanced?

Among the key legal concepts that will be explored are privacy, free speech, liberty, and equality. These are the cornerstones of Canada's constitutional framework and striking the proper balance between them is a challenging and complex business. Before attempting this task I will turn to the nature of the cyberbullying problem.

2. Cyberbullying: The Dark Underbelly of Technology and Social Media

I have been immersed in the troubling issues of bullying and cyberbullying since I chaired the Nova Scotia Task Force on Bullying and Cyberbullying in 2011 and 2012. Few (if any other) experiences have had such a profound and emotional impact on how I view the relationship between law and society. It has also accentuated my concern about the troubling underbelly of the modern world of technology and social media. While the amazing advances in both technology and social medial have changed the world in many positive ways, they have also had some very negative side effects as well. The problems of cyberbullying provide a window into even more far reaching social problems. As I stated at the outset of the Nova Scotia Task Force Report on Bullying and Cyberbullying:

Bullying is a major social issue throughout the world and is one of the symptoms of a deeper problem in our society: the deterioration of respectful and responsible human relations. The magnitude of the problem is daunting and there are no simple solutions on the horizon. There are, however, some effective strategies. The advance of technology and the prevalence of social media are profoundly changing how we communicate, and in so doing, they are also changing who we are. (1) I shall return in the next section to a brief exploration of how omni-present technology and pervasive social media have changed the way we live and communicate with one another. In many ways we may be witnessing a modern version of Marshall McLuhan's famous insight that "the medium is the message." (2) The message being delivered by the ever changing forms of technology and the exploding medium of social media, is at best a mixed one. Cyberbullying is one of the darker messages and one that has deep and disturbing implications for all of us.

The problems of bullying and cyberbullying raise some of the largest and most complex issues in society. At the core of the bullying issue is the need for respectful and responsible relationships among young people and in society generally. While there is lots of blame to go around, bullying is not just about unacceptable individual conduct but rather a complex web of relationships and attitudes that permeate all aspects of modern society. It is about values, community (or the loss of it), a breakdown in respect for other people, and the need for citizens young and old to take responsibility for their actions and inactions. The lack of respect for other people and their property, a failure to take responsibility for individual and collective actions, the loss of a sense of community and core values were all too evident in these high profile displays of violence and irresponsibility. Problems of bullying and cyberbullying are not confined to youth and in many respects the mandate of this Task Force intersects with some of the largest and most troubling issues of our time. (3) One of the lessons that I learned from the Cyberbullying Task Force experience is that the problem of cyberbullying is more about relationships between people than about traditional legal issues about rights and responsibilities. It is also about a deterioration in our basic human relationships and loss of caring, empathy and respect.

There are direct and tragic consequences to bullying and cyberbullying and the impact is particularly damaging for young people. At a time when "fitting in" and being accepted by one's peers is vital, the corrosive impact of relentless cyberbullying is acute. The immediate trigger for the May, 2011 appointment of the Nova Scotia Task Force on Bullying and Cyberbullying was a series of tragic teen suicides involving young women in high school. There appeared to be links between the suicides and bullying and cyberbullying.

One of these 2011 victims was Jenna Bowers-Bryanton, the fifteen year old daughter of Pam Murchison, who is now a courageous anti-bullying advocate. (4) While suicides are complex issues and there is rarely a clear cause and effect relationship, there does appear to be a growing body of evidence that there are links between bullying and suicides. (5) Another tragic death of a fifteen year old Nova Scotian woman was clearly linked to sexualized cyberbullying, when a naked picture of her, allegedly being sexually assaulted by four boys, was circulated around her school and beyond. The death of Rehtaeh Parsons by suicide at age 17 not only captured the attention of people throughout the world, but also sparked significant legal change, as will be discussed later. Once again her parents, Glen Canning and Leah Parsons, have become tireless advocates for more effective responses to the related problems of cyberbullying and suicides. (6) The role of Rehtaeh's parents, Pam Murchison and many others like them, should not be underestimated. They played an important role in advancing not only education and prevention programs but also the creation of new laws at both the provincial and federal levels.

There have been many tragic suicides including young men as well as women. The 2012 case of a gay teen in Ottawa is yet another example. (7) One factor in his case was the fact that he was gay. Being a member of the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) community has been identified by many studies (including the Nova Scotia Task Force Report) as increasing the risk for both bullying and cyberbullying. It is also not accidental that so many young women are victims of sexualized cyberbullying. Another tragic case of suicide linked to cyberbullying is the October, 2012 case of the British Columbia teen, Amanda Todd. Her online video in which she made a desperate cry for help with a series of hand-written notes, captured both national and international attention. The very technology that victimized her has now been used to track down and charge a man in the Netherlands for enticing her to flash her breasts online.

Cyberbullying is an alarming world-wide phenomenon and not restricted to any particular province or nation. After completing my work on the Nova Scotia Task Force on Bullying and Cyberbullying I was interviewed by journalists from the United States and the United Kingdom and was included as part of a documentary video for Japan's equivalent of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Nova Scotia through a range of circumstances (some involving high profile suicides) has become the epicenter of responses to cyberbullying. In particular, the unique Nova Scotia Cybersafety Act (8) has attracted both national and international attention.

Unfortunately, the tragic convergence of cyberbullying and suicides also has international dimensions. In 2012 two cases in the United States produced national and international headlines. In Steubenville, Ohio, the rape of a young teenage woman by her classmates and members of the school football team initially produced a reluctance to prosecute but eventually resulted in the conviction of the boys. (9) The young female victim was mercilessly attacked on social...

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