01/09/2014 11:24 EST | Updated 03/11/2014 05:59 EDT

Stop Hating Online: MacKay Launches Anti-Cyberbullying Ad Campaign

HALIFAX - The federal government is spending $4 million on a television and Internet advertising campaign to raise awareness about cyberbullying and the looming legal consequences of using intimate images to torment people online.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay said the Stop Hating Online campaign, launched Thursday at a school in Halifax, will begin by explaining to parents how cyberbullying can cross the line into criminal activity.

"This is about awareness," he said in an interview. "It's about outreach and empowering young people to take responsibility for their actions and understanding the consequences of hitting send."

Next month, a second phase of the campaign will encourage youth to take action against cyberbullying

The federal government introduced a bill in November that would make it illegal to distribute "intimate images" without the consent of the person depicted. The legislation would also give courts the power to seize computers, cellphones and other devices used in an offence, and help victims recoup part of the cost of removing the images from the Internet.

The bill applies to adults and young people alike who become targets for online harassment.

When he tabled the bill, MacKay said Canadians had been moved by a number of recent cyberbullying suicides, including the death of Rehtaeh Parsons, the 17-year-old Halifax girl who died in April after trying to take her own life.

Her family alleges she was sexually assaulted by four boys in November 2011 and that a digital photo of the incident was passed around her school, prompting months of harassment through social media.

The RCMP looked into the allegations but initially concluded there were no grounds to lay charges. However, they later reopened the case after receiving new information, then charged two teens in August.

One of the teens faces two counts of distributing child pornography, while the other is charged with distributing and making child pornography.

Soon after the parents of Parsons made her suicide a public issue, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood in the House of Commons and said: "We absolutely must speak out against the notion that some people have that 'anything goes' on the Internet."

The issue quickly became part of the Conservative government's high-profile law-and-order agenda.

MacKay said Harper, the father of two teenagers, had taken a keen interest in stamping out cyberbullying.

"I've noticed that he does become quite emotional, maudlin about this," MacKay said. "He becomes very introspective when it comes to the impact that it has on someone's life."

When asked if he was bullied as a child, MacKay said he was teased for wearing glasses and changing schools after his parents split up. But he stressed that the schoolyard taunts he endured hardly compare with the insidious nature of cyberbullying.

"It is so pervasive and so corrosive on society," he said. "It allows bullies to follow people home. ... The (text and images) are not only out there in your school and community, they can literally reverberate around the world in seconds. That brings it to a whole new level."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said both teenagers in the Rehtaeh Parsons case have been charged with making child pornography.

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