This Ruling Could Change Online “Free Speech” Forever

On internet harassment and hate speech, and the Canadian court case that is attracting attention:

The law itself is still trying to understand how the Internet works. Consider a recent case in Canada that’s about to get a ruling. It may be the first case in the country of alleged criminal harassment solely via Twitter.

While we don’t have the full details, previous articles on this case convey that women expressed concerns of harassment when a man they blocked continued to interact with them. Regardless of being blocked, his comments at and about them continued, escalating to the point of concern when he commented on locations they apparently visited.

What’s interesting to note, however, is how The National Post phrases this:

“The graphic artist and father of four lost his job shortly after his arrest, which was well-publicized online, and if convicted, could go to jail for six months…These are astonishing repercussions given it’s not alleged he ever threatened either woman (or any other, according to the testimony of the Toronto Police officer, Detective Jeff Bangild, who was in charge) or that he ever sexually harassed them.”

Notice what the Post thinks are the only reasons worth being punished for: threats and sexual harassment. This is a thorough misunderstanding of what constitutes online harassment and the many ways it can and does occur. Worse, it completely ignores the effects it has on targets.

Consider, for example, the teen hacker who recently pleaded guilty to 23 charges relating to online harassment. More importantly, consider his targets. As Wesley Yin-Poole writes:

“[The teen hacker] would…post personal contact information [of victims] online and repeatedly call victims late at night…Victims ranged in location from B.C. to states across the US, including Minnesota, Utah, Arizona, Ohio and California.

One woman, a student at University of Arizona in Tucson, was forced to drop out of her course due to the teen’s continued harassment. Armed police were called to her house twice within the same week, and family members were removed from the home at gunpoint.”

None of this required sending threats or expletive-filled messages directly to the targets. But we already know this: Stalkers leave letters filled with adoration; catcallers shout out what they consider to be compliments to women.

And harassers are the ones often protected by the current nature of the Internet. As WHOA (Working to Halt Online Abuse) notes: “The very nature of online crimes means that we have little information regarding the harassers, as most victims either don’t know their harasser or do not know enough information about them for us to record.”

This Ruling Could Change Online “Free Speech” Forever – The Daily Beast.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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