Is online harassment a criminal offense? When is too far?

After a long and public trial, Gregory Alan Elliott was cleared of two charges of criminal harassment that stemmed from his Twitter interactions with two Toronto women. Having known one of these women I’ve been following the case since the beginning and have been curious to see what happens.

For background: Guthrie told police she felt harassed after several heated interactions with Elliott in the summer of 2012. Even after she blocked him, he continued to barrage her with tweets, and made it clear he had detailed knowledge of the neighbourhood she lived in. He would also co-opt hashtags she invented, aggressively inserting himself into conversations about her organization Women in Toronto Politics.

I’ve been struggling with the verdict since it came out last week trying to understand what this means for the victims and the justice system as a whole. This article “Canada’s First Twitter Harassment Trial Sets a Scary Precedent for Women” covers some of how I feel and the general idea that with modern tools we need modern laws.

This verdict is troubling. A precedent has now been set that if a person is harassed online, that harassment will not be deemed criminal unless a physical element is introduced, or unless the harasser repeatedly uses violent language…..Once again, a man’s “freedom of expression” trumps a woman’s right to feel safe and secure.

Our current laws do not protect individuals in our digital world. There’s a lot of harassment that happens online everyday, so much of this directed at women! Why aren’t we talking about the impact this has on women and the web? We’re making the web a scary, closed and unfamiliar places for so many people. We’re hurting the lives of so many individual who fall victims to online harassment and are hurt, fearful and even forced into taking their own lives. I fear we’re not focusing on cyber violence and the effects it has on individuals or the web, which leaves us unable to deal with these issues (both on the web and in the court room).

I fear for myself and others. It’s inevitable that some of us will say something controversial online and quickly learn how scary of a place the internet can actually be. Inevitable that individuals will stand up for others, like the two women did against Gregory Alan Elliot, and feel the wrath of trolls unpacking every bit of our internet existence for public display and scrutiny.

That being said, I’ve been working on something in parallel that focuses on education, conversation and prevention of cyber violence and I’m really excited to share soon. Stay tuned!

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