Two recent court decisions involving online harassment reveal a cybersphere that remains largely unpoliced and one that the judicial system is ill-equipped to adjudicate.
In February, the British Columbia Crown decided not to charge a man who had created a revenge website to destroy the reputation of his ex-wife. The decision states that the woman, who lives in Arizona, did not have an objective basis to fear for her safety, even though the website included her private photos, address and phone number, along with descriptions of her as a white supremacist, child abuser and drug addict. The man also reportedly sent the revenge website’s link to his ex-wife’s colleagues.
The acquittal of a Toronto man charged with criminal harassment in January similarly speaks to the high threshold of what constitutes criminal behaviour in the online world. An Ontario judge ruled that the man’s incessant and often vulgar tweets sent to two women’s rights activists constituted harassment, but that alone did not meet the legal threshold for a conviction and would not reasonably have led the women to fear for their safety.
The rulings show that the law has its hands tied when it comes to bringing to task people who have no qualms with wrecking the mental and emotional equilibrium of others from miles away. Trivializing online abuse on the grounds that it does not pose a physical threat is akin to saying that it is okay to throw a glass of water at someone’s face if the water is not hot. The argument that fear for one’s safety is “reasonable” only if the threat is imminent and physical is anachronistic, as evinced by the suicide of British Columbia teen Amanda Todd in 2012, which ignited a national debate on criminalizing cyberbullying.
Digital technology has given rise to various permutations of abusive online behaviour with their own Internet slang to boot: trolling (posting inflammatory or offensive online comments with the intent to upset or elicit an angry response), revenge porn and lulz (a plural variant of LOL, it has become a catchphrase for fun, laughter or amusement derived at another’s expense). In the digital age, threats to personal safety do not involve only physical harm. Emotional duress and psychological trauma facilitated through digital platforms are no less hurtful and are just as debilitating.
While men and women can both fall victim to online harassment, women are more vulnerable to cyber abuse, which often takes on sexist and even misogynistic overtones when it occurs. For example, the revenge website created by the British Columbia man contained demeaning comments and details about his ex-wife’s sex life, while the tweets sent by the Toronto man were described in the ruling as “vulgar and sometimes obscene.”
The decisions speak to the double standards applied to the real and virtual worlds in which we live: behaviour that would not be tolerated in our offline existence is deemed acceptable — or at least, not worthy of prosecution — online. The legal framework needs to start recognizing and prosecuting cyber violence for what it is. In the meantime, common decency offers the best guidance: what you would not do to someone in his or her face, you don’t do over cyberspace.