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What to do if you are a victim of cyberbullying or cyberlibel – Part 1

In last month’s posting, I wrote about the tragic case of Rehteah Parsons, the Nova Scotia teenager who took her own life after being cyberbullied. I have since received requests for some of my readers for advice on what to do if you are a victim of cyberbullying. I will respond to this request in two postings. The first is meant for parents of children who are being cyberbullied. The second, which will appear in next month’s posting, is meant for adults that are victims of cyberlibel or cyberbullying. This information can also help businesses take steps to support employees and manage the risk of cyberlibel or cyberbullying in their organizations.

My child is being cyberbullied – what should I do?

First a disclaimer. I am a lawyer and not a therapist, and so I will only be discussing the available legal remedies. If your child is a victim of cyberbullying, it is advisable to consult with a mental health professional. In addition, I recommend notifying the police, particularly if the cyberbullying involves threats or harassment, or if you are concerned with your child’s safety.

School involvement

When a child is being cyberbullied, more often than not the bully is a schoolmate of the victim.

In Ontario, when a child is a victim of cyberbullying and the principal of that child’s school becomes aware of the situation, the principal must take active steps to investigate the cyberbullying to determine, amongst other things: (a) whether the culprit is a school pupil; and (b) whether the cyberbullying took place while “at school, at a school-related activity or in other circumstances where engaging in the activity will have an impact on the school climate”.

As a parent, you should immediately bring the issue to the attention of the school (principal and board). You should require the school to investigate the identity of the cyberbully (see below) and strictly deal with the bully, once he or she is identified. If the school is reluctant to take steps to investigate and respond to the probem, the parent can do so on their own, but should hold the school accountable, if it turns out that the cyberbully is a student of the school.

Take-down requests to the Internet Service Providers

As soon as you become aware of the cyberbullying, take steps to identify the companies that host or control the websites on which the cyberbullying is taking place, often referred to as Internet Service Providers (“ISPs”). Usually, you can do so by running some online searches. Sometime, it is obvious who the ISP is (Facebook or Twitter for example). If it is not obvious, you may need to ask an IT Professional for some assistance in that regard.

Once you identify the ISP, send them a letter (by email should suffice) with a “take-down” request. This is a formal request made on behalf of your child. In your letter, specify the following:

  • Your name and your child’s name;
  • Your child’s age;
  • Identify the URL (the web address) where the cyberbullying content is posted;
  • State that the URL is controlled/hosted by the ISP you are writing to;
  • State that the URL contains information that cyberbullys/ libels/ harasses/is untrue/impersonates (etc.) your child;
  • State that it is causing serious harm to your child’s safety/mental health/wellbeing/reputation
  • State that the content violates the ISP’s Terms and Conditions of Use or Policies (most ISPs will post these policies on their website);
  • Ask that the content be removed from the web immediately;
  • State that all the information in your letter is true to the best of your knowledge and belief;
  • Ask that the ISP disclose the identifying information of the person who made the posting, including IP addresses; and
  • If the ISP will not disclose the identifying information (which it will often not do for privacy reasons), ask that it preserve the identifying information until a formal court order can be obtained.

In many cases, the ISPs will comply and remove the information from the web. That does not end the process. Once the ISPs remove the offending content, it will likely still appear in Google’s (and other search engines’) search results, because the search engine “caches” those results for a certain period of time (essentially, it copies the contents of the URL into its own database). You should therefore submit a take-down request to the search engines, by requesting that the “cached” site be removed from search results. Each search engine has a mechanism for submitting such request (for example, click here for Google removal requests).

I also recommend running regular Google searches of your child’s name, in case the content has been reposted or has migrated to other websites, and repeating the process as needed.

Identifying the cyberbully

Removal of the content from the web may not end the cyberbullying, since the cyberbully will still be out there, posting new content or sending new messages to your child. The only effective way to bring an end to the problem is by identifying the bully.

Whether you are a parent or a school board acting for the victim, you can apply to the Canadian courts for a disclosure order (sometimes referred to as a Norwich Order). The order will be made against the ISP that controls the website, and will order the ISP to disclose identifying information about the cyberbully.

In some cases, one order will be sufficient to produce the information necessary to identify the cyberbully. In other cases, this process may need to be repeated a number of times until the culprit is identified. However, it is likely that the Court application will proceed unopposed, as most ISPs will not respond to the application, but simply await you serving them with the issued order. Moreover, you may request that the victim’s name not be identified in the Court proceedings, so as to ensure that the court proceedings do not cause your child any further harm or embarrassment.

Once the cyberbully is identified and is confronted by his or her parents, the school, or other authorities, the cyberbullying is likely to stop. If it does not, you can commence legal action against the cyberbully (or, in cases involving a minor, his or her parents) seeking an order that the ISPs remove the offending content from the web, and ordering the cyberbully to stop posting any further content about your child online, as well as monetary damages.

Maanit Zemel
Miller Thomson LLP

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Maanit Zemel

Internet and Social Media lawyer, commercial litigator at MTZ Law
Maanit Zemel is a commercial litigator admitted to practice in Ontario and New York, with substantial experience and expertise in Internet and social media law, including Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL), privacy, online defamation, cyberbullying and cyber-security. Read more.
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