It seems like just yesterday that I was logging onto the internet for the first time by way of a white NetComm 33.6k modem (ask your parents if you don’t know what this is) and listening to the growling, grunting noises it made as it connected, then constantly reconnected, to what then passed for the internet. If you have never heard what a dial-up modem connecting to the information superhighway sounds like, imagine the sounds that a pug vigorously mating with a large, angry dinosaur would make.
You kids today don’t know how good you have it. Back in my day, it would take hours to download a single pornographic image. Nowadays, I hear you can easily access internet sites that are dedicated solely to high definition porn videos, or cat videos, or porn videos with cat videos running in the background.
However, not all improvements to the internet’s speed and accessibility have had such a positive outcome.
When I was in school, social media sites like Facebook did not exist, so I never had to worry about other students posting hateful or abusive messages about me on my Facebook page. Bullies just abused me to my face, which was still crap but at least it had a sense of the personal touch, or fist, about it.
Today, the internet is a very different place. For whatever reason, we now live in a world where terrible people think that they have the right to use the internet to bully or abuse someone, without any legal consequences. And you know what? Until very recently, the assholes doing these sorts of things were right.
It has only been in the last few years that Australian politicians and courts have realised that our existing telecommunications laws, designed to protect people from prank phone calls late at night, or nasty letters in the mail, are not really designed to protecting people from online abuse and cyberbullying.
Strap in, my dear reader, it is author rant time.
I truly and deeply believe that the law’s reach into, and influence on, the internet, particularly when it comes to social media, is incredibly important. We have all experienced the impact that social media has on our lives and our society. From enabling private conversations between friends who may live hundreds of kilometres apart, to organising and galvanising huge political movements such as that seen in the US with the women’s marches in the days immediately following the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, to the rise of revenge porn as a way of humiliating or harassing a former lover (which I deal with in the next section), and countless other examples, social media affects us all. And it is not going away.
Given all the ways we can use and abuse the internet, I cannot for the life of me understand why our criminal laws have not kept up. We regulate our news media, so that it is, in theory, relatively fair and balanced, and we have defamation laws to protect all of us from untrue or malicious reporting. Why then is social media, where most of us now get our news and share our thoughts and opinions on anything and anyone, so poorly regulated?
Our laws need to be updated now to deal with changes in modern communication technology and techniques as too many people are being hurt by cyber bulling, both mentally and physically. If we had clear and simple laws that made it illegal to use the internet to bully someone, and strong punishments like fines or even jail time for those who break these laws, then perhaps the pathetic excuses for human beings who do this sort of thing would think twice before cyberbullying others. Once a few of them start getting charged with cyberbullying, the rest of the cowards will stop doing it pretty damn quick.
Changing the laws in this way does not mean less free speech; it means less hateful speech that harms and intimidates others. I am all for people being able to share their own views and opinions, but not when their sole and malicious intent is to shame and abuse another person.
So what can you do, from a legal perspective, if you are a victim of cyberbullying?
While we don’t have specific criminal laws on cyberbullying (see above rant), it is still a crime to use a telecommunication service, like the internet, to make a threat against someone or to menace, harass, or cause offence to them. That might mean you can bring a charge against someone who is cyberbullying you, if you can figure out who is doing the bullying.
I was surprised in a good way – well, as good as you can be given the subject matter – when in 2016 the Australian Federal Police successfully used these laws to prosecute a man for making abusive and racist comments on Facebook, which included threats of rape and racially motivated violence. The man making the posts was tracked down at home, charged, found guilty by a judge, and given a good behaviour bond as a punishment.
A victim could also bring a charge of assault or stalking against a cyber bully, if the victim has a real fear for their safety because of the bullying and can work out who the bully actually is.
The problem with proving these charges under our current laws is in gathering enough evidence, given most if not all of the offensive messages and materials will be online and not particularly permanent, and are often made by an anonymous coward. That means that if you are a victim of cyberbullying, it is important that you keep copies of all abusive text messages, take screenshots of your Facebook page that shows the hateful messages you receive, print offensive emails, and so on. I know this will be painful, and not something you want hanging around on your computer or on your desk at home, but it will be incredibly helpful if you do want to bring criminal charges against your bully.
Thankfully, there are a growing number of ways in which you can report incidents of cyberbullying, and these can result in legal and personal consequences for the bully.
Firstly, you can report cyberbullying to all the social media platforms though their ‘Contact Us’ or equivalent web page. Each of them has policies that prevent their users from using the social media service to bully others. If the messages you receive are sufficiently serious and you can provide evidence of the bullying, the social media service will permanently ban the account of the bully. It is a small step, but an important one as you try to regain your dignity and self-respect.
Next, there is a national reporting system for online cybercrime, which allows you to report cyberbullying. It is known as the Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network (or ACORN). If you report cyberbullying through this system and can provide them with enough supporting evidence, then your submission to the ACORN system will be sent to law enforcement and government agencies for further investigation. You can make a report at https://report.acorn.gov.au/.
Finally, if you are under 18 years of age, or your child is under eighteen years of age, and you believe you or your child is a victim of cyberbullying, please also lodge a complaint with the Commissioner of eSafety at https://esafety.gov.au/complaints-and-reporting/cyberbullying-complaints/i-want-to-report-cyberbullying.
The Commissioner has a range of powers to protect those under the age of eighteen from cyberbullying, including the power to require a social media site to remove the offensive material from their platform.
And damn it, people, just be nice to each other online. It is not hard.