Cyberbullying: Is a Law Needed?

CBC News this morning, “Canadian Private Member’s Bill Targets Cyberbullying,” tells us this:

A Vancouver MP wants to amend the Criminal Code to target children and teenagers who use mobile phones and the internet to bully others. Currently, the code makes harassment, libel and spreading false messages criminal offences.

Do we need a law on harassment by electronic media, to go along with the general Criminal Code prohibition [s. 264]?

Do we need all our laws amended to say “by electronic means”? or a general statute that says “whatever the law prohibits, that prohibition applies as well to the activity by electronic means”? (The Uniform Electronic Commerce Act dealt largely with the opposite policy, i.e. whatever the law allows is allowed by electronic means as well – subject to a few purpose-directed guidelines.)

Or should we let our prosecutors and courts (continue to) figure this out for themselves?’

How useful is symbolic legislation?


  1. Harassment is harassment is harassment — the means shouldn’t be especially relevant if the communication and effect on the victim can be made out sufficiently. If someone feels that “by electronic means” must be formally-included in the definition of harassment, that suggests that police and prosecutors are deploying an impoverished idea of harassment when choosing which cases to pursue. In such a case, the addition wouldn’t be symbolic, because it forces police and prosecutors to recognize those cases of harassment they were (presumably) ignoring before.

  2. I was under the impression that the law didn’t even deal with regular bullying. How often is a child prosecuted for picking on another one in school? Would adding ‘by electronic means’ change this?

  3. I think the better question is whether we should make bullying, harassment, and libel criminal offences. What a silly bill.

  4. A civil law lawyer has suggested that the common law is more at risk of thinking it needs provisions like this proposed bill, because it is more inclined than civil law to be specific about how offences are committed, and thus more likely to say or imply that one medium of communication rather than another is needed to commit them. The civil law, on the other hand, is more abstract, at a higher level of generality, and thus more likely to be read as technology neutral.

    Does this sound right to you?

  5. You simply cannot compare old-fashioned bullying with bullying via the internet. Being humiliated in front of a small group is a transient experience witnessed by few. Material on the internet can remain there indefinitely and can be accessed by anyone anywhere – including law school admissions staff and prospective employers.

    What sort of other deterrents are there for judgment-proof teens?

  6. The question is not whether harassment by way of the Internet should be a crime but whether a special provision is needed to extend to the Internet what appears on its face to be a medium-neutral offence.

  7. I am a third year University of Victoria student, presently writing a paper on whether or not Canada is equipped to protect its youth from cyberbullying. According to my findings, the inclusion of words like \by electronic means\ to existing criminal code offences would not necessarily do much good; however, the addition of provisions specifically aimed at deterring cyberbullying could be quite beneficial – as the abuse often takes forms and has damaging effects that are not accounted for in Criminal Code provisions for harassment, libel, and spreading false messages.

    Does anyone know of any cases where social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace have brought legal action against a User or Users for violating the Terms of Use/Terms of Service (in the context of User(s) harassing other User(s) by means of the service). Please let me know if you have come across such a case!

  8. Here’s Internet Law News today with a survey of teachers in the United Kingdom that says that 10% of them have been subject to cyberbullying.

    Are any of the incidents reported appropriate for criminal charges? Would Ms Fry’s bill make any such incidents subject to criminal prosecution in Canada, if they are not already?

    Cyberbullying ‘Affects 1 In 10 Teachers’

    New research shows that more than one in 10 teachers in the UK are bullied by pupils and colleagues through text messages, emails and social networking sites. Of those who had suffered cyberbullying personally, 63% had received unwelcome emails, 26% had offensive messages posted about them on social networking sites such as Facebook or Rate My Teacher, and 28% were sent unwelcome text messages, according to the survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the Teacher Support Network. [Guardian]

  9. Imagine if the only weapons were sticks and the law developed accordingly. “The act of causing unprovoked, offensive touching shall be a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not more than $5,000 and imprisonment for not more than sixty days.” There’s no need to specify “by means of a stick” because that’s the only weapon (besides bare fists I suppose).

    Now introduce hand grenades into this society. Do you just leave the law as it is, or do you rewrite the code to include “by means of a hand grenade”? Would introducing that language be sufficient to modernize the law in a meaningful way?

    Cyberbullying causes an entirely novel type of harm. It is not a mere magnification of the harm caused by bullying. It is clear that the internet has made many of the old rules in our society obsolete and we need to take a new approach rather than try to fit the old square peg into a new round hole.