HALIFAX - The Nova Scotia government stepped up its fight against cyberbullying Thursday with legislation that could strip people of their phones and computers, impose hefty fines and clear the way for court action against online bullies.
Justice Minister Ross Landry outlined the provisions of the new Cyber-Safety Act, which includes a unique investigative unit dedicated to pursuing and penalizing so-called cyberbullies, while making parents liable for their child's bullying, if necessary.
"We will not allow cowards to make people's lives miserable online," Landry told a news conference at a high school in Halifax.
"We will insist that parents take responsibility for what their children are doing online. We will fight back."
The legislation would create a team of five investigators in the Justice Department, who would be trained to look into cyberbullying complaints and resolve them informally, if possible.
It's expected that team would be set up within six months at a cost of about $800,000 a year.
Bob Purcell, the department's executive director of public safety and security, said investigators would be able to identify an alleged cyberbully through their Internet Protocol address and talk to them about the activity.
He said that if it doesn't stop or can't be resolved, investigators could seek a prevention order that would allow them to seize smartphones, tablets and computers for evidence. They could also hand the matter over to police.
Purcell said officials could obtain a court protection order, which could prevent the person from contacting the alleged victim or talking about them online, remove their computer or phone or restrict their Internet access.
"There will be consequences outside the school system and for those matters that don't fall in the criminal system, we've set out other consequences," he said. "So, we're hoping that will deter people."
The legislation would include fines of up to $5,000 and a prison sentence of up to six months if someone doesn't comply with a protection order.
Karen Casey, the Liberal education critic, applauded the measures but said they could have been acted upon sooner by the provincial NDP government after a panel issued a report recommending many of the same initiatives more than a year ago.
"Until you can translate legislation into action, it really is idle legislation," she said. "Four to six months to get people in place, that's added onto the 14 months of inaction since the task force report — time is running out here."
Wayne MacKay, a Halifax law professor who led the task force, said he was pleased with the new act but cautioned that it needed some finessing to ensure it works.
He said it appeared the government was taking the issue of cyberbullying seriously, but that it has to ensure it respects the rights and privacy of people accused of the offence.
The Dalhousie University professor said any legislation has to include three components: education, changing the laws and preventing cyberbullying by teaching young people about how to be responsible online citizens.
"I think this is a very significant advance in taking the whole issue seriously," he said. "We still need to look at ... preventing and educating and developing better relationships so we don't have to resort to the law at the end of the day."
The legislation comes almost three weeks after 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons was taken off life-support following a suicide attempt at her home in Halifax. Her family says she was relentlessly bullied for months after a digital photo of her allegedly being sexually assaulted was passed around her school.
School principals would also be given broader ways to deal with cyberbullying complaints, such as counselling, speaking to people at home or initiate restorative practices, under the legislation.