When it comes to online safety, the internet is becoming a nastier and scarier place for many people, especially for women and children.
The list of crimes committed against women and children keeps growing and points out a problem that didn’t get much attention when society rushed to embrace the modern internet and its many technological wonders.
And New Brunswick has seen some of the worst examples in North America and maybe even globally of the dark side of the internet.
In the spring, we had an absolutely vicious, targeted campaign against a University of Moncton student that remains to this day one of the worst cases I’ve seen anywhere in North America of such a sustained and hateful effort.
The province also has the dubious distinction of having one of the largest cases in Canada where someone was caught exploiting thousands of children online: the case of a then-26-year-old man in Moncton, who police believe victimized more than 2,000 boys worldwide.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, we’ve seen the case of a cabinet minister, Cathy Bennett, resigning after being viciously harassed online as finance minister. She’d gone public last December about being a target of cyberbullying.
And tragically in Cape Breton in June, we have yet another case of a young person, this time a 13-year-old girl named Madison, who committed suicide after being bullied online and offline.
Some studies have said as many as one in five young Canadians has been the victim of cyber bullying or cyber stalking.
Legal system caught unprepared
Canada’s legal system simply wasn’t prepared for the deluge of criminal activity targeting women and children in particular.
First, on the issue of online sexual exploitation of women in Canada, we know more and more women are the victims of this crime, and thus far we’ve only seen a few cases proceed through the court system.
In one case, an ex-boyfriend received jail time to be served on a weekend. In a case in Toronto at the end of June, a photographer who released intimate images of women without their consent agreed as part of a peace bond to limit his internet and social media usage. That’s it.
Two of his four victims called the legal process “a slap on the wrist”.
But things may be getting better.
At the end of June, there was a key legal win for women when Patrick Fox was found guilty of criminal harassment by a jury in Vancouver. Fox was accused of tormenting his ex-wife with emails and a vulgar website that used her name and of targeting workplaces and neighbourhoods where she lived in Arizona with Google ads that directed traffic to the site.
We don’t know yet what his sentence will be or if he’ll appeal, but some legal experts have expressed hope this case will start to draw a line in the virtual sand with respect to such criminal behaviour online.
A need for more policing resources
The police face an unbelievably difficult task across Canada and the dedicated officers who work these cases deserve nothing but our praise and thanks.
But the reality is -— and they’re the first to say so — they can only deal with the worst of the worst cases and are completely swamped. And as criminals use increasingly complex tools to hide their tracks online or encrypt their stored data, that work is getting only more difficult.
When it comes to protecting children, we have to realize it’s not just online perverts that are part of the problem. A growing part of the issue of child sexual exploitation online is the sharing of photos by children themselves, take the Nova Scotia case where teenage boys have been charged with sharing intimate images of 20 girls without their consent.
Make no mistake, this is happening in schools across our region and our country.
A role for parents
Parents have to understand that the internet is a doorway to a world of good and bad and that they are the gatekeepers for their children. During a briefing in the spring from the RCMP, they recommend parents look at technologies like Circle by Disney, a home internet security and parenting device that has a simple-to-use app that makes it easy to control and monitor your child’s internet access.
Parents play a key role in protecting their children. I vividly remember a story told to me a few months ago by an acquaintance about a friend’s young son and his friend, bot pre-teens. She told me a friend of her young son — let’s call him John and the young gir Jane — came over one day with her iPod Touch and asked for his Wi-Fi password. John showed Jane where the password was and she went online.
A few weeks later John came to his mother and complained that Jane was no fun to hang around anymore because she was always on her iPod Touch.
John’s mom went to Jane’s mom and talked to her about her daughter’s iPod. Jane’s mom was surprised and said Jane didn’t take the iPod out of the house.
A few weeks later, Jane received a large stuffed animal in the mail from New Zealand and at first claimed it was from a classmate who moved. It turned out to be from a stranger.
The point is, pre-teens shouldn’t be using these devices unsupervised and parents should be regularly reviewing the communications involving their kids, as well as having regular chats about online safety and cyber bullying.
One new, fantastic resource here in New Brunswick is CyberLaunch Academy, which was founded by Natalia Stakhanova, cybersecurity expert at the University of New Brunswick. I’ve had the chance to work with Natalia on a few issues and she’s brilliant and has developed programs for parents, women and girls.
She’s also organizing an event in September to help educate parents about online safety for kids and what they can do, which is phenomenal.
These programs can help educate girls in middle or high school on cyber self-defence with practical skills and in-depth knowledge of modern threats such as online scams, malicious software and more.
For parents, these programs can help them understand more about the challenges of raising children in an ever-connected world with advice on how to protect their homes and talk to their children about these issues.
What more can be done?
This issue requires hard conversations and more research by social scientists about male behaviour toward women online. We need new tools and technologies put in place by companies like Microsoft, Apple, as well as internet service providers like Bell, Rogers and Telus.
We may even want to look at a new dedicated fee or tax on internet services and mobile phone services, say a dollar or two a month that could be used to finance efforts to combat online crime.
We simply need more resources for police to prosecute these crimes and more meaningful sentences for those convicted. Otherwise, the internet will continue to be a dangerous and harsh place, for women and children in particular.