British Columbia

Terrorism, harassment and public mischief: a legal guide to social media crimes

Benjamin Perrin, a UBC law professor, has put together a guide looking at how the law applies to social media postings.

UBC law professor puts together annotated version of Canada’s Criminal Code for social media use

More than 80 per cent of British Columbians use the internet and the majority of them use social media in some form. UBC professor Benjamin Perrin's guide looks at how Canada's laws apply online. (Shutterstock)

Social media has transformed the way people commit and experience crimes but, in many cases, policing and law-making have not yet caught up.

Benjamin Perrin, an associate law professor at the University of British Columbia, has put together a guide looking at how laws apply to social media postings. His annotated version of Canada's Criminal Code examines what constitutes a crime and gives examples of court case precedence. 

"It's the Wild West out there and what we are seeing are increasing numbers of Canadians becoming victims of crime on social media," he told CBC host Early Edition host Rick Cluff.

Perrin was critical of how social media is dealt with in court and said it reflects a need for greater understanding of new technology.

"Judges are all over the map. Some of them don't know what a tweet is or a retweet," he said. "Many of these judges, it's clear to me from the cases, have never set foot on social media and yet they are deciding cases involving sometimes very complicated social media questions."

Collecting online evidence

Beyond understanding the terminology of social media, gathering online evidence admissible in court can be challenging, Perrin said. Police have to monitor not only individual postings on social media but also capture the context in which it was said to establish whether a comment was said in jest or was a legitimate threat.

"They need to know, for example, who were you responding to and what was the thread of conversation? Who did they share it with? What is the history of using a certain hashtag?" he said.

Earlier this week, a B.C. man was acquitted of terrorism charges based on posts he had made on Facebook, after arguing the comments were political satire and not incitements to action.  

"They have to prove you meant it seriously or you meant to intimidate to get a conviction," Perrin said. "We've [also] had cases fall apart because someone says, 'that's not me' or 'that is my account, but you can't prove that someone else wasn't posting.'"

He said options to block someone online or report postings to the social media sites are not enough to combat online offences.

"If the social media platforms are not going to do a better job of managing what are clearly statements that go well beyond the line of free speech, like the threats that we see particularly against women online, the law is going to have to step in," he said.

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio link below:

With files from The Early Edition