by Katy Barnett
Cyber-bullying in Australia – Facebook
It’s not only Lara Bingle and other celebrities who have to worry about cyber-bullying, “sexting” and how to control the publication of generally offensive material. In recent weeks, a few incidents in Australia have raised these questions. First, offensive material was posted on a Facebook tribute page for 12-year-old Brisbane schoolboy Elliott Fletcher, who was stabbed to death by a fellow pupil at his school. Soon after, offensive material was also posted on a Facebook tribute page set up for murdered Bundaberg schoolgirl Trinity Bates. Meanwhile, some members of a Brisbane school formed a Facebook group which mocked the disappearance of Daniel Morcambe in 2003. Some other students from a different school formed a group which bullied a staff member, and were “disciplined”. And apparently there’s a whole genre of photos known as “revenge porn” out there on the web (as the name suggests, it involves an jilted lover posting explicit material about an ex-partner).
Cyber-bullying in the US – the MySpace case
The problem of bullying via the internet is not new. In the US in 2006, the issue came to the attention of the world after a 13-year-old girl named Megan Meier committed suicide. Meier had made contact with a 16-year-old boy named “Josh Evans” on MySpace. The boy purported to be attracted to Meier, but suddenly the tone of the messages turned nasty, and the final message sent from the Evans account said, “Everybody in O’Fallon knows how you are. You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a shitty rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you.” Meier replied, “You’re the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over.” 20 minutes later, she committed suicide.
As it turned out, there was no “Josh Evans”. The profile was fake, and it had been intended to lure Meier into an online relationship with “Josh” to find out what Megan was saying about Sarah Drew, a former friend and neighbour. Sarah’s mother, Lori Drew, and an 18-year-old employee of Lori Drew’s, Ashley Grills helped set up that account and, along with Sarah Drew, sent messages purporting to be from “Josh Evans”.
Lori Drew was prosecuted under the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for conspiracy and intentionally causing emotional distress. She was initially found guilty of a misdemeanor breach of the CFAA. On appeal, however, Drew was acquitted, as Wired explains:
The case against Drew hinged on the government’s novel argument that violating MySpace’s terms of service was the legal equivalent of computer hacking. But U.S. District Judge George Wu found the premise troubling.
“It basically leaves it up to a website owner to determine what is a crime,” said Wu on Thursday, echoing what critics of the case have been saying for months. “And therefore it criminalizes what would be a breach of contract.”
Cyber-bullying in the UK – Facebook case
By contrast, in a recent UK case last year (briefly summarised here) an 18-year-old girl was sentenced to imprisonment after threatening to kill another girl on her Facebook page update. This was the first case of its kind in the United Kingdom.
Cyber-bulling in Europe
Meanwhile, in Italy, Google executives have recently been convicted of privacy violation for hosting a video in which a boy with autism is being bullied and taunted by four other classmates.
And then there is the difficulty of “sexting” (sending sexually explicit pictures via the Internet or via mobile phones). In the US people who send sexually explicit messages are potentially placed on a sexual offenders’ register, and in Queensland at least, there is legislation which could result in a similar situation.
However, it has been criticised by those who feel that naive teenagers may be ensnared by the laws. Certainly in other States as well, the photography and distribution of pictures of the genital or anal area is a criminal offence (see eg, s 41B and s 41C, Summary Offences Act 1966 (Vic)). Apparently, a survey in an Australian teen magazine revealed 40% of readers had been asked to send a naked or semi-naked image of themselves over the internet.
3. Current Civil Laws in Australia
All these cases raise a number of important questions. How far should the providers of social networking sites and other sites control what happens on these sites? Does the law operate to prevent this kind of conduct, and should it be amended to do so? To an extent, it all depends how far one believes the law should reach, and whether the law can usefully regulate conduct such as this. My own interest, of course, is on the civil law (rather than criminal law) and whether it can be usefully be adapted in a way that protects people from being bullied on the internet, but also allows reasonable freedom of speech.
Defamation could be used against bullies who target a particular individual online, as it prevents publications which injure reputation by disparaging a person, causing others to shun or avoid a person, or subjecting a person to hatred, ridicule and contempt. Anonymity is not necessarily a protection against defamation, either. In a case in the US involving model Liskula Cohen, Google, who hosts Blogger, was forced to hand over the details of an anonymous blogger so that the blogger could be served with a defamation writ. (Of course, the defamation action could be said to be counterproductive, as it meant that the details of the defamatory statement were far more widely publicised than they would otherwise have been – a phenomenon known as the “Streisand effect“.)
Breach of Confidence
There may also be situations where an online communication may constitute a breach of confidence (particularly if images or content had been posted on a private setting, but are then broadcast publicly without the consent of the owner).
Breach of a “Tort of Privacy” ?
In Australia, at least, it would be more difficult to allege a breach of privacy. The most we have are some obiter comments from the High Court in ABC v Lenah Game Meats, in which it was concluded that Victoria Park Racing v Taylor did not preclude the development of a tort of invasion of privacy in Australia.
Some lower courts have since recognised an action for invasion of privacy.
- In Grosse v Purvis, Senior Judge Skoien of the Queensland District Court used the plaintiff’s criminal action against the defendant for stalking as a peg on which to hang a civil action, stating that since Lenah Game Meats, there was “a civil action for damages based on the actionable right of an individual person to privacy.”
- In Doe v ABC & Ors, Hampel J of the County Court of Victoria found the ABC liable for equitable breach of confidence and for breach of privacy for identifying a victim of a sexual assault in a radio broadcast. (The case settled before an appeal was delivered.)
- In 2008, the ALRC released a report on privacy law in which it recommended enacting laws to protect people from wrongful abuses of privacy.
- And most recently, in Giller v Procopets, Neave JA (with whom Maxwell P agreed) of the Victorian Court of Appeal canvassed the possibility of a tort of breach of privacy, but did not find it necessary to decide the issue.
So in Australia, at least, any tort of breach of privacy is nascent. Conversely, English breach of confidence law is much more clearly moving towards breach of privacy because of the influence of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
“Intentional Infliction of Mental Suffering”?
Also in Giller v Procopets, Maxwell P thought that there was nothing to preclude Australian law developing a tort of intentional infliction of mental suffering. Maxwell P noted that there is already a tort of intentional infliction of injury in Wilkinson v Downton, and thought that it was appropriate to extend that tort to mental harm.
In the US there is already a well established tort of intentional inflection of mental suffering (see for example, this post on the US case, Moreno v Hanford Sentinel). Neave JA also thought that such a tort was possible, but did not find it necessary to decide on the facts of the case before her. Conversely, Ashley JA found that the plaintiff would not have been able to recover in tort for something less than recognised psychiatric injury. So there is a possibility that a bully may be sued for intentional infliction of mental distress if US law is taken on board here.
Of course, with the internet, there may be a problem with jurisdiction if the wrongdoer is interstate or overseas, but Australian authority at this point suggests the courts are willing to work around this. Controversially, in the Gutnick case, the court allowed Joe Gutnick to sue for defamation in Victoria despite the fact that the defamatory material was published on a server in the US by a US company, because the damage to Gutnick’s reputation occurred in Victoria.
Perhaps if a few cases are brought against online bullies, it may bring awareness to people that what they are doing is wrong in law, not just morally wrong. Still, I can’t help thinking that a large number of perpetrators of online bullying would be likely to be teenagers against whom there would be little point in proceeding. I suspect criminal courts would be unwilling to lumber young people with a criminal record, and in civil claims, it is unlikely that young people would be able to pay damages. The law can only go so far. It’s also up to parents to supervise their children as much as they can, and to educate their children about the risks of allowing people to take compromising images of themselves.
Katy Barnett is a PhD candidate at the Melbourne Law School