Nova Scotia's awful cyber abuse law makes bullies of us all

Jesse Brown on the Cyber Safety Act

Jeff Chiu/AP

I’ve written before about the problems involved in legislating against cyberbullying.  I focused on the impossible issue of reaching a definition. Rape, assault, harassment: these are crimes with established parameters. All of them could also be called “bullying.” They could also be described as “mean,” and I suppose we could enact a law against being mean. But I’d rather have laws against specific crimes, rather than against vast swaths of vaguely defined human behaviour. Ultimately, bullying is in the eye of the bullied. For many, cyberbullying is equal to a negative thing said about them on the Internet. I’ve met restaurant owners who feel they’re being cyberbullied by Chowhound critics.

The problems with anti-cyberbullying laws don’t end there. Once a law establishes some flawed definition, it moves on to enforcement. Here’s how Nova Scotia’s new Cyber Safety Act, which went into effect yesterday, will go about stopping online abuse:

Someone feels that you’re cyberbullying them. They visit or phone the court and request a protection order against you (minors , or some reason, cannot do so, only adults). A judge decides if their claim meets the law’s definition. The definition of cyberbullying, in this particular bill, includes “any electronic communication” that “ought reasonably be expected” to “humiliate” another person, or harm their “emotional well-being, self-esteem or reputation.”

If this is the standard, I don’t know a person who isn’t a cyberbully.

The issuing of a protection order is an ex parte process between your accuser and the court. You won’t have an opportunity to defend yourself. If a judge issues one against you, here’s what might happen:

  •  The police can seize your computers and phone.
  • Your Internet connection can be shut off.
  • You can be ordered to stop using electronic devices entirely.
  • Your Internet Service Provider or Internet companies, such as Facebook, can be compelled to fork over all your data to the police.
  • You can be gagged by the court and prohibited from mentioning your accuser online.
  • If you violate any of these orders, you’ll face stiff fines and up to two years of jail time. At this point, your accuser can sue you in civil court.

But wait, there’s more.

If your kid is found to be a cyberbully, you are deemed to be a cyberbully as well for not stopping them, unless you can prove that you tried really hard to. Any civil suit would target you.

The act also modifies the Nova Scotia Education Act to make school principals somewhat responsible for what their students do online. It’s now their job to “promote and encourage safe and respectful electronic communications” between students wherever they are. So if a kid disrespects another kid on Facebook, a principal can suspend them for five days — something the principal could feel compelled to do.

By making both school administrators and parents liable, to various degrees, for what minors do online, the Cyber Safety Act puts pressure on adults to spy on teenagers.

The only sane aspect of the measure is the creation of a Cyber SCAN investigation unit, a team of five cyber abuse investigators who anyone can appeal to for help, including minors. They’ll probe incidents and seek resolutions that might include, say, a safe and open discussion between accuser and accused before court orders are requested. This feels like a reasonable way to approach online abuse between kids, but I am leery of what specific investigative powers the Cyber SCAN unit will have. Will this be a crisis-prevention team, or a bunch of cops tasked with spying on adolescents?

Nova Scotia’s Cyber Safety Act is in clear conflict with our Charter rights to free expression, and I can’t imagine it withstanding a legal challenge on those grounds. But that will take time.

Until then, watch what you say in Nova Scotia, and be very careful not to hurt anyone’s feelings.

Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown

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