Report urges cyberbullying law after Rehtaeh Parsons death

Distributing "intimate images" without prior consent ought to be illegal and carry a sentence of anywhere from six months to five years, says a new report that was expedited following the suicide of Nova Scotia teen Rehtaeh Parsons in April.

Criminal Code has a gap with respect to distribution of 'intimate images' without prior consent

Leah Parsons, left, mother of Rehtaeh Parsons, and her partner Jason Barnes, attend a protest near the Halifax Regional Police headquarters in Halifax on Sunday, April 14, 2013. A new joint federal-provincial report says distributing intimate images online without prior consent should be illegal. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Distributing "intimate images" without prior consent ought to be illegal and carry a sentence of anywhere from six months to five years, says a new report that was expedited following the suicide of Nova Scotia teen Rehtaeh Parsons in April.

The report, received on Friday by newly minted Justice Minister Peter MacKay, makes nine recommendations, ranging from enhancing current criminal law responses to bullying, to modernizing investigative powers in the Criminal Code, and ensuring that all levels of government continue to build on initiatives to address the issue of cyberbullying.

"I will consider the report and its recommendations, which will help guide the way forward to ensuring our children are safe from online exploitation," MacKay said in a written statement.

The report concludes there is a gap in the Criminal Code with respect to the distribution of "intimate images" without prior consent and recommends that a new criminal offence be created to address this gap.

The term "intimate images" is intended to refer to images or videos "that relate to the core of a person's privacy interest", not images that are simply embarrassing or unflattering.

"Such images are generally understood to depict explicit sexual activity or nudity or partial nudity that is captured on film or video consensually," says the report.

It acknowledges a "potential overlap" between the proposed offence and the existing child pornography offences.

The penalty for the proposed offence "is consistent with the penalty for voyeurism, which is also based on the protection of privacy," says the report.

The Criminal Code should also be amended to allow the victim" restitution for costs associated with the removal of the intimate images from the Internet, or elsewhere."

Modernize Criminal Code

With respect to cyberbullying, the report concludes that "most serious bullying behaviour" is covered under exisiting Criminal Code offences.

However, it does recommend that the Criminal Code be amended to modernize certain existing offences "to deal with harassment through electronic media, as well as the investigative powers for law enforcement, to ensure that all acts of cyberbullying carried out through the use of new technologies can be effectively investigated and prosecuted."

Because cyberbullying and the non-consensual distribution of "intimate images" takes place "primarily in the online world," the report says, it also recommends that the investigative powers of the police be brought into the internet age by amending the Criminal Code to include, among others:

  • New production orders to trace a specified communication.

  • New warrants and production orders for transmission data.

  • Amendments to existing offences and investigative powers that will assist in the investigation of cyberbullying and other crimes that implicate electronic evidence.

The review of laws surrounding cyberbullying was first commissioned in October 2012. Ottawa, the provinces and territories agreed to expedite the report in the wake of Parsons' death.

Parsons was 17 when she took her life. She had told her family she'd been raped, then bullied for months.

The provincial justice and public safety ministers expressed "a strong interest" in being further consulted on this issue, should the federal government decide to implement any of these recommendations into law.

MacKay will now study the report.