Don't let cyberbullies have the last laugh

It's a common thought that once someone's attacking you on the internet, there's nothing you can do about it. That's not true, and you need to speak up.

It's a common thought that once someone's attacking you on the internet, there's nothing you can do about it. That's not true, and you need to speak up.

(Credit: HP/film still from The Man Who Laughs by Universal Pictures)

Not long ago, The Sydney Morning Herald reported the sentencing of one Ravshan Usmanov.

In October last year, Usmanov spite-posted naked pictures of an ex-girlfriend to Facebook. The pair had broken up less than three months prior; like many jilted lovers, Usmanov thought that public dissemination of naked photos would make a fitting revenge. The SMH reported him as saying to the police, "I put the photos up because she hurt me and it was the only thing [I had] to hurt her".

Usmanov was sentenced to six months' imprisonment, to be served by way of home detention, for the crime of "publishing an indecent article" by the NSW Local Court. (This sentence was suspended in February of this year.)

The SMH also made the bold claim that Usmanov's was the first social-networking-related conviction in Australia. It wasn't. In March 2011, Bradley Paul Hampson was sentenced to three years' imprisonment (PDF) for one count of distributing child-exploitation material, knowingly possessing child-exploitation material and two counts of using a carriage service in an offensive way, after defacing the Facebook memorial pages of two murdered children. (He later had the sentence cut down to six months, and was released immediately, as he had already served 220 days.)

In 2010, Justine Jones was given a suspended sentence under the Criminal Code Act 1995, Part 10.6, Division 474.17(1) (using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence) for defacing the Facebook memorial page of a murdered woman.

According to a 2011 paper, "The Human Faces Behind Cyberbullying Offences", a 19-year-old man from Canberra was sentenced to six months' imprisonment after using Facebook to threaten another man, that man's brother and the brother's girlfriend for more than two weeks.

Cyberbullying (PDF) is nothing new. The instance that most people will immediately think of is the 2006 suicide of Megan Meier, which led to the criminalisation of internet harassment in Missouri in 2008, and the proposal of an amendment to Title 18 of the United States Code in order to cover cyberbullying.

But there have been others. News of children committing suicide over internet harassment hits far too often, and the sheer number of women reporting harassment when the #mencallmethings Twitter campaign exploded in November last year was staggering.

Just how much harassment goes unreported, I wonder?

And why? Do we think it's not as big a deal, because the perpetrator is at a remove? Or do we think that because sometimes they're anonymous, there's nothing that can be done? Or do we just assume that our legal system hasn't caught up yet?

It's actually not very surprising. I contacted the NSW Police, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the UTS Communications Law Centre, and, while they were all very friendly, they could give me very little information, since cases vary so widely.

But I went digging. OK, listen up. This is important.

First off, let's discuss the part of the law that says it's a crime to harass someone over the internet.

As mentioned earlier, it falls under Part 10.6 of the Criminal Code. Here it is, in all of its glorious detail.

474.15 Using a carriage service to make a threat

Threat to kill

1. A person (the first person) is guilty of an offence if:

  1. the first person uses a carriage service to make to another person (the second person) a threat to kill the second person or a third person; and
  2. the first person intends the second person to fear that the threat will be carried out.

Penalty: imprisonment for 10 years.

Threat to cause serious harm

2. A person (the first person) is guilty of an offence if:

  1. the first person uses a carriage service to make to another person (the second person ) a threat to cause serious harm to the second person or a third person; and
  2. the first person intends the second person to fear that the threat will be carried out.

Penalty: imprisonment for seven years.

Actual fear not necessary

3. In a prosecution for an offence against this section, it is not necessary to prove that the person receiving the threat actually feared that the threat would be carried out.

Definitions

4. In this section:

"fear" includes apprehension.

"threat to cause serious harm to a person" includes a threat to substantially contribute to serious harm to the person.

474.16 Using a carriage service for a hoax threat

A person is guilty of an offence if:

  1. the person uses a carriage service to send a communication; and
  2. the person does so with the intention of inducing a false belief that an explosive, or a dangerous or harmful substance or thing, has been or will be left in any place.

Penalty: imprisonment for 10 years.

474.17 Using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence

1. A person is guilty of an offence if:

  1. the person uses a carriage service; and
  2. the person does so in a way (whether by the method of use or the content of a communication, or both) that reasonable persons would regard as being, in all the circumstances, menacing, harassing or offensive.

Penalty: imprisonment for three years.

Basically, here's what it says: if someone is threatening you with or without intent to do harm, or otherwise harassing you in a targeted manner, they are committing a crime. You have recourse under the Australian legal system; don't do a Marieke Hardy, and take matters into your own hands.

Firstly, document everything. The NSW Police said, "Any evidence of the incident/s will assist police in their investigations. For online incidents, this would include any emails, screenshots or print-outs. You should not delete the items, and you should also keep a record or diary of all incidents which you can provide to police."

Deleting items will make the ISP of the offender harder to trace, so keep all correspondence. File it into an email folder if it's via email. Save screenshots from your phone if it's via text message, and back the photos up (just in case you drop and shatter your phone or something). If it's wall posts on Facebook or Twitter posts, screenshot them too, since the person posting them can delete them at any time. Don't respond. Just document.

Also, don't be put off by the fact that your harasser may be overseas. Australian law enforcement agencies regularly work together with their international counterparts; and your local police will be able to advise you if steps may be taken.

If you're being stalked, or you think you might be being stalked, there's an incident report form here that outlines the sort of information the police will find helpful.

Finally, absolutely go to the police. The law isn't going to come to you; so you'll have to go to the law.

The internet is a vast and wondrous resource; but it shouldn't be protection for the vile scum who want to hide behind it to spew their malicious, bilious hatred.

 

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