Facegoat? Criminal Investigations in Canada and Social Networking

The Internet and the court of law have long been at odds in Canada — for a lot of things, but in particular for publication bans coming from court cases. A most recent example has been demonstrated through this article in the cbc, that I noticed via Library Boy and has since been discussed by my blogging compatriots David Fiander, Connie Crosby and others on the Uncontrolled Vocabulary(#25) podcast (Go about 13/16ths of the way to the end of the podcast).

Those who lived in Toronto (as I have) during the early 90s would remember the story of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka and the subsequent trial that included a publication ban that was variously violated on the internet, in particular by US publications that perhaps felt the ban was a violation of their 1st amendment rights.

The important thing to remember is that publication bans are only temporary and exist primarily to ensure that offenders get a fair trial. Juries in Canada are not sequestered as they are in the states and they can be unduly influenced by media reports and other publications, particularly ones that are biased as the ones on facebook appeared to be.

The question that comes to my mind and seems to appear in the mind of my colleagues is whether Facebook marks a particular shift from the way publications violated these bans 10 years ago. Is Facebook responsible for new ways of violations, or is it just a scapegoat for law enforcers who appear unable to keep up with the changing ways that people express themselves on the internet.

My reaction is still that of questioning. I cannot say I have a decision here, although I certainly have my biases toward social networking and against what I perceive as a chronically over-reactive response from law enforcers. That said, I do have some bullet points about what I think the key differences may be:

  • Young people see technology as a way of life. They seem to relate posting photographs on facebook as hardly different from typical schoolground gossip.
  • Graphic media appears to make a difference. Not only can someone make a hasty accusation using someone’s name, they can also post their picture, or a movie of them, making the identification even more stark.
  • Victims and perpetrators alike may already have a prominent online presence: that makes finding photographs and videos even easier than in the past.
  • The audience is just that much larger.
  • In Canada, Facebook gets alot of attention — perhaps for good reason. [Aside: Notice how my hometown has a per capita search rate that is larger (by a good amount) than the rest of the world. Put Facebook alongside “fiddle” and “lobsters” as key search terms in Halifax.]
  • Youth violence in general is a key political issue in Canada, and approaches to this issue are key dividing points. In a minority government winning the “battle of difference” is very important as the Harper government looks for a majority and the opposition parties look to topple.
  • Facebook has been accused of other improprieties in Canada, including productivity loss, resulting in a ban for Ontario staff, not being able to deal with alleged defamers, and, of course, the recent privacy problems with their advertising platform.
  • Unlike the internet, enforcers will have to sign-up for Facebook accounts to find indiscretions. Surfing the net to find child pornographers is one thing, but creating a persona to do go after seemingly minor crimes is another. Think about it, you get one of those “is this really a friend?” friend requests and a few months later, you are on the line for a minor indiscretion your made that just happened to be posted by a clueless acquaintance. There is definitely something to be said about the police having to walk on eggshells in a Facebook environment.

In the end, there is alot of educating that needs to be done about behaviors online. Cyberbullying, copyright infringement and now, obstruction of justice, are all things that people may do with realizing the consequences until they unwittingly end up in court themselves. Public librarians especially, you have a responsibility to act on this one.

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