During National Bullying Awareness Week Canadian lawmakers announced a new cyberbullying bill, but critics aren’t jumping for joy because the bill is freighted with provisions that have nothing to do with cyberbullying, like terrorism and cable theft.
About the Proposed Canadian Cyberbullying Law
The goal of the propsed Canadian cyberbullying law, says Peter MacKay, is to close a gap in current legal code. As it stands, there is no easy way to handle cyberbullying that involves online transmissions. Once an image is uploaded online, there is no way to stop its propagation. When an image is posted on a publicly visible website, it’s often archived remotely. Any number of people can save the image to personal drives or re-host it on other sites. Often, the original uploader loses control over it. Worse, attempts to scour the image off the Internet typically lead to further reposts.
Even an image specifically messaged via SMS from one party to another can be re-sent, distributed and reposted. A single private photo first makes its way to other “interested parties,” who share it and share it until it “goes viral”. Unfortunately, currently there is no legal way to deal with this kind of viral explosion in popularity.
The new legislation, if it becomes law, grants the police additional powers in cyberbullying cases. Police will be able to seize computers, phones, tablets and other digital devices in order to stop the propagation of offending content and assist in its removal.
If passed, the law will require police to obtain warrants and maintain close oversight on the process, to minimize potential risks and misuses.
The primary criticism of the law is its breadth. It’s stated aim is to stop cyberbullying, which is a noble cause. Critics of the law point out, however, that draft bill provisions go far beyond cyberbullying. One cited example is its ability to stop people who are found to steal cable signals.
Under the draft law, anyone accused of sending an intimate image without the recipient’s consent can face five years in prison. Additionally, the proposed statute gives police more power to track and monitor terror suspects. The same law allows the same level of monitoring of suspects who use software to crack the encryption on wireless or cable TV signals in order to watch without being charged.
Comparisons have been drawn between C-13 and abandoned bill C-30. C-30 was a similar proposal aimed at protecting people from, and limiting the distribution of, child pornography. The bill was abandoned, not because of any flaw in its premise, but in the way it handled its process. C-30 allowed police unlimited access to private customer information from Internet service providers — without a warrant. Public outcry and privacy concerns forced the abandonment of C-30, and a similar outcry may sink C-13.
The government claimed to abandon C-30 fully, stating any further modernization of the criminal code will not include provisions included in C-30. Yet the government seems to be including very similar provisions in C-13.
Data and Metadata
Every phone call, text message or digital communication includes two things: data and metadata. The data is simple; it is the content of the call. The text sent in a text message is the data. The metadata is all of the other information necessary for digital communication. It includes what devices are involved in the communication, such as phone models. It includes geographic locations of the sender and recipient. Granting access to this information without a warrant is the primary concern of public watchdogs.
The issue with this bill, and previous bills such as C-30, is not in the proposed intent. Something does need to be done about the aging criminal code that lacks the powers to handle modern cyberbullying, child porn and other digital issues. The issue may not even lie in what is included in the bill. With judicial oversight and required warrants, obtaining digital metadata is not unfounded.
The problem with many of proposed cyberbully bills is the omnibus nature of their provisions. This bill, C-13, does not include a handful of small provisions to stop cyberbullying. Rather, it includes a large number of provisions and expansions in power that, on their own, may be abused. Several different points which warrant debate are lumped into one bill and advertised under one purpose. The government hopes, perhaps, to pass these provisions under the heading of a benevolent cause.
The aging criminal code is not the only issue with legislation like C-13. Perhaps the aging perspective of current representatives is at fault. There is no doubt that laws need to be created to handle these modern situations and digital crimes, but without a digital perspective, the laws simply look like transparent attempts to expand police powers.