Private member's bill targets cyberbullying

A Vancouver MP wants to amend the Criminal Code to target children and teenagers who use mobile phones and the internet to bully others.

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.

However, "it isn't explicit that it applies to electronic messaging," Liberal MP Hedy Fry told Thursday, following a news conference in Ottawa.

The day before, Fry had introduced a private member's bill to specify that harassment, libel and spreading false messages by electronic means are also criminal offences.

Fry said that clarification is important because the internet is now the biggest mode of communication that people have. At her news conference, she cited a 2009 University of Toronto survey of more than 2000 students that found 50 per cent had been bullied online.

"If you put something out in cyberspace about somebody, not just the kids in the schoolyard know — the people in Germany will know, for crying out loud," she said in an interview. "And what is bad is, it's never erased, it can stay there forever."

Bill will provide tool to identify bullies: MP

She added that the internet often allows bullies to remain anonymous.

"In the United States, in 48 states, these states have access to internet service providers and they can get information from them and we can't do that."

Her bill will not automatically make the identity of internet users available, she said.

"But it will give a tool to prosecutors, it will give a tool to judges if they believe it is necessary to get this information."

When asked if she knew of any cases where someone had bullied another person electronically and had not been charged due to a lack of clarity in the bill, Fry cited the case of a young teenager in Ontario who was shunned after her friend circulated a rumour online that she had SARS.

Fry acknowledged that the perpetrator would not necessarily have been charged even if her bill were law, but she thinks the change to the criminal code would have given comfort to the victim.

"It decreases the level of powerlessness that people [victims] feel and the level of anonymity that people [bullies] can hide behind."

Fry's bill is supported by the Canadian Teachers' Federation. The group's vice president, Paul Taillefer, joined Fry at her news conference Thursday, saying that while her amendments won't necessarily stop cyber bullying, "They will offer clearer protection from the criminal code for those targeted by cyber abuse."

Katie Neu, who founded the website at age 14 after being bullied herself, said she thinks Fry's bill will make victims "feel there is something they can do and it's not their fault."

University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist, said there is often a desire to add new legislation like Fry's to address internet issues, the area that he focuses on in his research. However, in most cases existing legislation can already handle those issues.

"What we don't have are the resources to deal with them."

He also noted that very few private member's bills ever become law.