“Cyber Safety” in Nova Scotia

This province’s new Cyber Safety Act, drafted after the horrible Rehteah Parsons case came to light, officially took effect yesterday.

The law firm of Stewart McKelvey published this brief summary of the new law:

Cyberbullying is defined in the Act as:

any electronic communication through the use of technology including, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, computers, other electronic devices, social networks, text messaging, instant messaging, websites and electronic mail, typically repeated or with continuing effect, that is intended or ought reasonably be expected to cause fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other damage or harm to another person’s health, emotional well-being, self-esteem or reputation, and includes assisting or encouraging such communication in any way.

A person who subjects another person to cyberbullying commits the tort and can be liable for general, special, aggravated and punitive damages and be subject to an injunction.

[…]

If the person committing the tort of cyberbullying is under the age of 19, his or her parent(s) or guardian(s) will be jointly and severally liable, unless they can convince the court that they:

a.) Were exercising reasonable supervision over the child at the time the child engaged in the activity that caused the loss or damage; and

b.) Made reasonable efforts to prevent or discourage the child from engaging in the kind of activity that resulted in the loss or damage.

Factors the court will consider in making this assessment include:

– The age of the child;

– The prior conduct of the child;

– The physical and mental capacity of the child, including any psychological or other medical disorders of the child;

– Whether the child used an electronic device supplied by the parent, for the activity;

– Any conditions imposed by the parent on the use by the child of an electronic device;

– Whether the child was under the direct supervision of the parent at the time when he or she engaged in the activity; and

– Whether the parent acted unreasonably in failing to make reasonable arrangements for the supervision of the defendant.

My time in Junior High was hellish enough without the internet and camera phones, so I shudder to think what it must be like today for those who don’t fit in.

But I also have little faith in the government’s ability to fundamentally understand, much less police, what happens online.  And legislation hastily drafted in response to a moral outrage inevitably has serious problems.

Freedom of expression is not absolute.  That’s why we have the tort of defamation, and laws against criminal harassment and “hate speech.”  But not everything that might disturb you, or hurt your self-esteem, should be considered “bullying.”  (I’m often accused of taking my political views way too seriously, and there’s no shortage of commentators who can get my back up almost every day.  But does that harm my “emotional well-being,” or do I just need to lighten up?)

And in an age where, in most households, both parents are working, there is only so far a parent can go in supervising their children’s internet usage.  It’s easy to delete your browser history (or turn on “private browsing”), so even the most diligent parent will not know everything that their son or daughter is posting.  And even if they don’t have home internet access at all, the youngster can just go to any public library.

I don’t want children being bullied online (or offline, for that matter), but there are other societal values – especially freedom of expression, and people not being held legally responsible for things they didn’t know about – which should be kept in mind. If the Cyber Safety Act survives Charter scrutiny at all, here’s hoping the courts keep these principles in mind.

Update: Jesse Brown, technology columnist for Maclean’s, savages the new legislation:

…Rape, assault, harassment: these are crimes with established parameters. All of them could also be called “bullying.” They could also be described as “mean,” and I suppose we could enact a law against being mean. But I’d rather have laws against specific crimes, rather than against vast swaths of vaguely defined human behaviour. Ultimately, bullying is in the eye of the bullied. For many, cyberbullying is equal to a negative thing said about them on the Internet. I’ve met restaurant owners who feel they’re being cyberbullied by Chowhound critics.

The problems with anti-cyberbullying laws don’t end there. Once a law establishes some flawed definition, it moves on to enforcement. Here’s how Nova Scotia’s new Cyber Safety Act, which went into effect yesterday, will go about stopping online abuse:

Someone feels that you’re cyberbullying them. They visit or phone the court and request a protection order against you (minors , or some reason, cannot do so, only adults). A judge decides if their claim meets the law’s definition. The definition of cyberbullying, in this particular bill, includes “any electronic communication” that ”ought reasonably be expected” to “humiliate” another person, or harm their “emotional well-being, self-esteem or reputation.”

If this is the standard, I don’t know a person who isn’t a cyberbully.

Is there really a bullying epidemic?

Reason‘s Nick Gillespie, writing in The Wall Street Journal, is skeptical:

But is America really in the midst of a “bullying crisis,” as so many now claim? I don’t see it. I also suspect that our fears about the ubiquity of bullying are just the latest in a long line of well-intentioned yet hyperbolic alarms about how awful it is to be a kid today.

I have no interest in defending the bullies who dominate sandboxes, extort lunch money and use Twitter to taunt their classmates. But there is no growing crisis. Childhood and adolescence in America have never been less brutal. Even as the country’s overprotective parents whip themselves up into a moral panic about kid-on-kid cruelty, the numbers don’t point to any explosion of abuse. As for the rising wave of laws and regulations designed to combat meanness among students, they are likely to lump together minor slights with major offenses. The antibullying movement is already conflating serious cases of gay-bashing and vicious harassment with things like…a kid named Cheese having a tough time in grade school.

How did we get here? We live in an age of helicopter parents so pushy and overbearing that Colorado Springs banned its annual Easter-egg hunt on account of adults jumping the starter’s gun and scooping up treat-filled plastic eggs on behalf of their winsome kids. The Department of Education in New York City—once known as the town too tough for Al Capone—is seeking to ban such words as “dinosaurs,” “Halloween” and “dancing” from citywide tests on the grounds that they could “evoke unpleasant emotions in the students,” it was reported this week. (Leave aside for the moment that perhaps the whole point of tests is to “evoke unpleasant emotions.”)

[…]

But is bullying—which the stopbullying.gov website of the Department of Health and Human Services defines as “teasing,” “name-calling,” “taunting,” “leaving someone out on purpose,” “telling other children not to be friends with someone,” “spreading rumors about someone,” “hitting/kicking/pinching,” “spitting” and “making mean or rude hand gestures”—really a growing problem in America?

Despite the rare and tragic cases that rightly command our attention and outrage, the data show that things are, in fact, getting better for kids. When it comes to school violence, the numbers are particularly encouraging. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1995 and 2009, the percentage of students who reported “being afraid of attack or harm at school” declined to 4% from 12%. Over the same period, the victimization rate per 1,000 students declined fivefold.

When it comes to bullying numbers, long-term trends are less clear. The makers of “Bully” say that “over 13 million American kids will be bullied this year,” and estimates of the percentage of students who are bullied in a given year range from 20% to 70%. NCES changed the way it tabulated bullying incidents in 2005 and cautions against using earlier data. Its biennial reports find that 28% of students ages 12-18 reported being bullied in 2005; that percentage rose to 32% in 2007, before dropping back to 28% in 2009 (the most recent year for which data are available). Such numbers strongly suggest that there is no epidemic afoot (though one wonders if the new anti-bullying laws and media campaigns might lead to more reports going forward).

After my horrible experiences in high school, I should be right on board with the anti-bullying movement, but I find something deeply off-putting about it.  Maybe it’s the sight of so many of the people who made my junior-high life a living hell preaching about it on Facebook.

Or, it could be the fact that legislators across North America are further trying to limit our personal freedoms.  For the children, you know:

In their never-ending quest to make Connecticut a less annoying place, state legislators — apparently having solved unemployment, crime and school funding — have trained their sights on annoying speech.

bill introduced March 22 by the Senate Judiciary Committee — which is up for a hearing in that committee Thursday — would create the new misdemeanor criminal offense of “Electronic Harassment.” (Note to Dave Barry: “Electronic Harassment” would be an exceptional name for a band.)

A person would be guilty of the crime of “Electronic Harassment” under the following conditions: (1) Transmitting information over any electronic medium (anything from radio to the Web to texting), (2) that is based on a person’s “actual or perceived traits or characteristics,” (3) that causes a person “substantial embarrassment or humiliation within an academic or professional community,” and (4) is done with an intent to “annoy” or “alarm” the person.

Read that carefully, and think about how much First Amendment real estate it covers.

For example … how about this Al Franken column, [actually a Joe Conason column, about Franken’s controversial election to the Senate – DJP] “Rush Limbaugh is still a big fat idiot.” Transmitted electronically? Check. Based on traits or characteristics? Argue amongst yourselves whether they are “actual” or “perceived.” Causing substantial humiliation? If it is possible for Rush Limbaugh to feel humiliation, definitely. Done with an intent to annoy? Oh, at the very least.

Stay clear of Connecticut, Senator Franken — or bring your checkbook, since SB 456 carries up to a $2,000 fine, with the possibility of a year in jail.

For being annoying.

Via the great Ken at Popehat, whose posts about “cyberbullying” legislation are not to be missed.

The end of football?

It could happen, according to economists Tyer Cowen and Kevin Grier:

By now we’re all familiar with the growing phenomenon of head injuries and cognitive problems among football players, even at the high school level. In 2009, Malcolm Gladwell asked whether football might someday come to an end, a concern seconded recently by Jonah Lehrer.

Before you say that football is far too big to ever disappear, consider the history: If you look at the stocks in the Fortune 500 from 1983, for example, 40 percent of those companies no longer exist. The original version of Napster no longer exists, largely because of lawsuits. No matter how well a business matches economic conditions at one point in time, it’s not a lock to be a leader in the future, and that is true for the NFL too. Sports are not immune to these pressures. In the first half of the 20th century, the three big sports were baseball, boxing, and horse racing, and today only one of those is still a marquee attraction.

The most plausible route to the death of football starts with liability suits.1 Precollegiate football is already sustaining 90,000 or more concussions each year. If ex-players start winning judgments, insurance companies might cease to insure colleges and high schools against football-related lawsuits. Coaches, team physicians, and referees would become increasingly nervous about their financial exposure in our litigious society. If you are coaching a high school football team, or refereeing a game as a volunteer, it is sobering to think that you could be hit with a $2 million lawsuit at any point in time. A lot of people will see it as easier to just stay away. More and more modern parents will keep their kids out of playing football, and there tends to be a “contagion effect” with such decisions; once some parents have second thoughts, many others follow suit. We have seen such domino effects with the risks of smoking or driving without seatbelts, two unsafe practices that were common in the 1960s but are much rarer today. The end result is that the NFL’s feeder system would dry up and advertisers and networks would shy away from associating with the league, owing to adverse publicity and some chance of being named as co-defendants in future lawsuits.

It may not matter that the losses from these lawsuits are much smaller than the total revenue from the sport as a whole. As our broader health care sector indicates (try buying private insurance when you have a history of cancer treatment), insurers don’t like to go where they know they will take a beating. That means just about everyone could be exposed to fear of legal action.

Via Ilya Somin at The Volokh Conspiracy, who responds that the NFL and other football leagues could successfully push for tort-reform laws protecting the sport from legal action.  Maybe, but that wouldn’t solve the insurance problem – not to mention a gradual decline in the number of young people being allowed to play the game.  (Football is my favorite sport, but the more we learn about head trauma, the more nervous I become about my own sons possibly taking part.)

If history is any guide, the NFL will go out of business just as the Cleveland Browns are about to win the Super Bowl.

Where the nanny state leads

When you keep infringing on people’s freedom “for the children,” a little at a time, eventually you get something like this:

Anurup and Sagarika Bhattacharya – an Indian couple from Kolkata are living a nightmare in Norway. Their children – a three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter – were taken away from them by Norway’s child protective services and placed in foster care eight months ago.

The drastic measure was taken because, according to the child protective services, the couple were not bringing the children up properly. What did they do wrong? They fed the children with their hands and the infants slept in the same bed as the parents.

“My son was sleeping with my husband. They said he should sleep separately from your son,” said Mrs Bhattacharya.

“Feeding a child with the hand is normal in Indian tradition and when the mother is feeding with a spoon there could be phases when she was overfeeding the child. They said it was force feeding. These are basically cultural differences,” said Mr Bhattacharya.

Recently, the Indian Embassy in Oslo stepped in and an officer even met the children, though the parents were not allowed to.

Reason‘s Shikha Dalmia says the parents have not been allowed to even see the children for the past eight months.  For this.  But remember, the government always knows best.

Ski helmets to be mandatory in Nova Scotia

Sigh:

The Nova Scotia government plans to pass a law requiring all skiers to wear helmets.

Under legislation to be introduced Tuesday, any skier not wearing protective headgear would face a $250 fine.

Since 2000, 11 people have suffered traumatic brain injuries related to skiing or snowboarding without a helmet, the Department of Health and Wellness says.

The new law would go into effect next November. Ski hill operators would have to post signs alerting people about it, but there are no fines if they don’t.

It’s not known what it would cost to have government inspectors enforce the law.

Nova Scotia has three ski resorts that open regularly every year.

I say we just cover our bodies in bubble wrap and be done with it.

Smoke some weed, lose your kids

That’s the situation for some parents in NYC, at least, where The New York Times reports that the child-welfare system has become “an alternate system of justice” for people who possess miniscule amounts of marijuana:

The police found about 10 grams of marijuana, or about a third of an ounce, when they searched Penelope Harris’s apartment in the Bronx last year. The amount was below the legal threshold for even a misdemeanor, and prosecutors declined to charge her. But Ms. Harris, a mother whose son and niece were home when she was briefly in custody, could hardly rest easy.

The police had reported her arrest to the state’s child welfare hot line, and city caseworkers quickly arrived and took the children away.

Her son, then 10, spent more than a week in foster care. Her niece, who was 8 and living with her as a foster child, was placed in another home and not returned by the foster care agency for more than a year. Ms. Harris, 31, had to weather a lengthy child neglect inquiry, though she had no criminal record and had never before been investigated by the child welfare authorities, Ms. Harris and her lawyer said.

“I felt like less of a parent, like I had failed my children,” Ms. Harris said. “It tore me up.”

Hundreds of New Yorkers who have been caught with small amounts of marijuana, or who have simply admitted to using it, have become ensnared in civil child neglect cases in recent years, though they did not face even the least of criminal charges, according to city records and defense lawyers. A small number of parents in these cases have even lost custody of their children.

[…]

Michael Fagan, a spokesman for the Administration for Children’s Services, said the defense lawyers were offering a simplistic portrayal of these cases.

“Drug use itself is not child abuse or neglect, but it can put children in danger of neglect or abuse,” Mr. Fagan said. “We think the argument that use of cocaine, heroin or marijuana by a parent of young children should not be looked into or should simply be ignored is just plain wrong.”

Mr. Fagan said most of the cases involved additional forms of neglect, like a child who is not going to school or who has been left unattended.

“In other times, we find that admitted marijuana use masks other substance abuse,” Mr. Fagan said.

But lawyers for parents countered that the agency often brought neglect charges based solely on recreational marijuana use, then searched later for other grounds to bolster cases.

“In some cases, there are other allegations, but we think they are add-ons,” said Susan Jacobs, executive director of the Center for Family Representation, which works in Manhattan and Queens. “The reason the person is being brought into Family Court is the marijuana use.”

A parent’s chronic drug use (no pun intended) may be grounds for government intervention, but this story combines two of my least favorite things: overzealous action by the state, and paranoia about the demon weed.

(hat tip: @MikeRiggs)

Put your hands up and drop that iPod

It’s a bit insulting to call this a nanny-state proposal, because most grandmothers I know would never propose something this stupid:

New York state Sen. Carl Kruger wants to make his state’s streets safer.

To do that, he’s not proposing a tough new gun law or advocating for broader police search powers.

No, Sen. Kruger sees a greater danger out there.

Distracting gadgets.

He hopes to ban the use of mobile phones, iPods and other gadgets by pedestrians in major cities while crossing the street.

[…]

Kruger said a series of accidents in his Brooklyn district made him concerned about the number of pedestrians he saw paying closer attention to their devices than to what was in front of them.

He’s been trying since 2007 to ban the use of distracting gadgets by pedestrians crossing streets in major New York cities with a population of 1 million or more. Violators would face a $100 fine.

[…]

Arkansas Sen. Jimmy Jeffress backed a similar proposal to Kruger’s – one that would make it illegal for pedestrians and bikers to wear headphones near or on streets – before retracting his plans Tuesday afternoon.

Jeffress told Fox16.com that he was inspired to draft a proposal after reading about a traffic accident in Little Rock. Jeffress later told the Associated Press he received many e-mails opposing the bill and admitted that the proposal didn’t have a chance of passing, but felt he was successful in voicing the issue.

I predict this will be the law in your city within ten years. (In Toronto, it probably already is.)