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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Rise of the Cyber Bully

(This article was originally published in the Technology Supplement of the Sunday Times of Malta in March 2010)

Way back in my secondary school days, in a time were mobile phones in our country were star trek fiction and the internet was the domain of the US military and big shot university scientists, a trip to school meant waking up before sunlight and enduring a 60 minute bus drive to distant Dingli. This period of the day was normally prime time for widespread homework copying but also ideal for schoolboy pranks.

A typical foolish example would be affixing a whole squad of Serie B calciatori 'stickers' on someone's blazer without the latter distinguishing between a friendly slap on his back and the fact that his school uniform was being maliciously turned into a contemporary art installation. School bullying was the order of the day. Back then, our concept of technology and its availability was far different than today's.

Malta enjoys a mobile penetration rate that has surpassed the 100% mark and internet has become a common feature in our lives. Bullying and harassment are no longer limited to the school bus and our mobile phones and the internet have become prime tools for these activities. Like in many other activities in our lives, we have added the cyber flavour to bullying and harassment.

It is generally accepted that whilst cyber-bullying refers to the use of technology by children and teenagers to harass other children, cyber-stalking or cyber-harassment refers to similar activities committed by adults and most normally including acts which can threaten a victim's employment, reputation or his/her safety which for instance is rampant on sites such as Wikipedia and Amazon.com.

Typical examples of cyber-bullying or cyber-harassment include sending threats or other offensive material to a 'victim' using such means as online postings in social networking sites, instant messaging as well as SMS. These can range from cruel or embarrassing remarks as well as inappropriate comments and stalking emails or messages.

Technology has become a common platform or a tool for such dastardly activities. Whilst one might see schoolboy pranks as an innocent natural part of growing up, cyber-harassment is not limited to kids but has became the subject of various international high profile cases.

In 2003, a 13 year old boy from Vermont (US), Ryan Halligan committed suicide after being incessantly insulted and threatened by his classmates including the use of instant messaging and labelling him 'gay' and 'loser. He was found hanged in the family's bathroom.

In 2006, a 13 year old girl from Missouri (US), Megan Meier, committed suicide by hanging. Following investigations, her suicide was attributed to cyber bullying through various posts she was receiving through a ficticious Myspace account. It later transpired that these posts were not being sent by other children but by Lori Drew, the mother of another girl who used to be friends with Meier, and who was concerned that Meier was spreading rumours about her daughter.

The internet is the perfect platform for the cyber-bully or the cyber-stalker. It makes it simpler for an offender to hide himself and make it more difficult to be traced. Such messages and posts also spread very quickly and can reach a greater audience than traditional methods.

We may experience cyber-harassment directed towards us or our work colleagues as an everyday occurrence and yet we may fail to realise that our sick jokes might be well considered as criminal and its not an easy task to draw a line of demarcation.

Harassment is very widely defined in our law. The Criminal Code stipulates that a person who pursues a code of conduct which amounts to harassment of another person and which he knows or ought to know that such course of conduct amounts to harassment shall be guilty of an offence. The law makes use of the 'reasonableness' test whereby such offence would only subsist if a reasonable person in possession of the same information would think that such course of conduct would amount to harassment. It is also interesting to note that Article 251C of the Criminal Code states that reference to 'harassing a person' also includes alarming the person or causing the person distress.

The Criminal Code however remains silent on the nature of any tools used in connection with the harassment and one is led to assume that the intention of the legislator was to criminalize the action, irrespective of whether any technology such as computers or mobile phones was used to carry out such action.

This may be a blessing in disguise as other jurisdictions had to specifically introduce promulgations criminalizing cyber-stalking. Cyber-stalking offences were addressed at a federal level in the US in the year 2000. Other countries who also specifically introduced cyber-stalking as a criminal offence include Australia and the United Kingdom. Cyber-bullying has also reached the law books in several American states.

As with any other crime which has the technology ingredient, self-help is key. Whilst in various other countries many educational campaigns have been launched and task forces setup, Malta is still waking up to this phenomenon. Cyber-harassment and cyber-bullying are becoming widespread in our workplaces and our schools more than we think. Our law might have stood the technology test and might protect us but we need to understand that to protect ourselves and our children we have to learn to respect each other and think twice before sending that funny public email or sms about our colleague or class mate.

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