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Paula Simons: Cyberbullying bill exploits teen girls’ deaths

Bill C-13, the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, announced by the federal government Wednesday, was supposed to fight cyberbullying.

Bill C-13, the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, announced by the federal government Wednesday, was supposed to fight cyberbullying.

Instead, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are cravenly using high-profile teen suicides such as those of Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons to peddle an omnibus bill that could put Canadian civil liberties at risk.

Federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay and Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney unveiled the law as part of Anti-Bullying Week. But the sweeping legislation cracks down on everyone from people who still steal cable and Wi-Fi, to computer hackers, to people accused of hate speech.

MacKay said on Wednesday that C-13 was the “appropriate bill” to deal with the “theft of telecommunications.”

That’s not quite how independent Edmonton-St. Albert MP Brent Rathgeber sees it.

“I support the measures against cyberbullying,” Rathgeber told me via Twitter.

But, he argues, it’s a serious matter and deserves its own bill: “No connection to theft of cable TV!” In truth, the first part of the bill is problematic enough. It makes it a crime to sell or distribute intimate images without the permission of the subject of those photos — if the pictures were taken at a time and place when the subject had an expectation of privacy.

Intimate images are defined as those in which a person is nude, exposing their genital organs or anal region, engaged in explicit sexual activity or, in the case of women, exposing their breasts.

But what about a case in which someone has an incriminating photo of a public figure in a compromising position? A city councillor, for example, up for re-election, who has sexted pictures of his genitalia to someone he connected with via a hookup site? Suppose someone posts a picture of a woman breastfeeding without explicit permission?

What about a case where an embarrassing party photo is posted to Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, not maliciously, but carelessly or frivolously?

The law does provide an exemption in cases where the posting of the image serves the public good. But it’s left to the courts to decide if that test is met. Even if someone acts with benign intentions, they are not protected from prosecution.

“The motives of the accused are irrelevant,” reads the bill.

It also includes civil-forfeiture provisions, allowing the seizure of materials that might be intimate images on “a balance of probabilities” — a civil test with a lower standard than proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The government has attached a motley collection of other measures to the act, including penalties of up to two years in prison for anyone convicted of importing, selling, sharing or using a device or computer program that allows people to obtain telecommunication services without payment.

There are also provisions allowing police to seize computers and cellphones from people they believe are engaging in hate speech, amendments to crack down harder on suspected money-launderers and terrorists, and changes to make it easier to install tracking devices on the persons or property of people under police surveillance, or to get ex parte orders to seize computer data.

This 53-page bill is about so much more than cyberbullying, much more than most opposition members were able to absorb on a first reading.

It will be a handy tactic, of course, for the Conservatives to insinuate that anyone who questions this legislation must be on the side of the bad, bad bullies.

How strategically clever to tuck so many potentially troubling infringements on fundamental civil liberties deep inside legislation that is ostensibly about protecting the vulnerable from sexual exploitation.

That’s why Harper spends almost as much time throwing his pet legislative initiatives into an omnibus, as he does throwing former political allies under the bus.

The tactic isn’t new. But here, it’s particularly unseemly. Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons were sadly exploited in life. How disturbing that their images and imagery should be exploited now, after their deaths, to serve the government’s own political and ideological agendas.