Friday, October 7, 2011

A new menace: cyberbullying

THE QUESTION is not whether cyberbullying is a crime under Philippine law; the acts constituting cyberbullying certainly do. The question is, instead, whether it ought to be considered as a new crime in itself. I answer in the affirmative.

Both because of its relatively recent prevalence and the continuing changes in the way it is conducted, cyberbullying does not have an established definition. The US National Crime Prevention Council, focusing on the instrument used to perpetuate it, says cyberbullying is when the Internet, cell phones or other devices are used to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person.

To Bill Belsey is attributed the description of cyberbullying as involving the use of information and communication technologies to support deliberate, repeated and hostile behavior by an individual or group, that is intended to harm others. focuses on its usual victims and its common perpetrators, thus describes it as a situation when a child, tween or teen is repeatedly tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another child or teenager using text messaging, e-mail, instant messaging or any other type of digital technology.

But all the descriptions contain the three essential elements of the offense that is conceived as cyberbullying first, the use by the perpetrator of modern information and communication technology; second, for the purpose of harassing, humiliating, hurting, or embarrassing; and third, a victim who by reason of age, physical stature, or psychological make-up is particularly vulnerable to being damaged thereby.

If cyberbullying is limited to these three essentials, then a case could be made that cyberbullying is really no more than a modern form of maltreatment or unjust vexation punishable under our Revised Penal Code.

Unfortunately, cyberbullying has more vicious characteristics that suggest considering it separately.

The first is anonymity of the perpetrator. The offensive e-mails and text messages can be easily sent from a computer in any cybershop or café. Or from a private laptop or a personal handheld device.

This anonymity which makes it almost impossible to trace the offensive message to its real source actually encourages the bad behavior. The likelihood of not being caught breaks down the offenders inhibitions and eliminates his fear of reprisals from the victim.

In aberrant persons, anonymity is even a prodder of sorts, at the very least, a strong temptation to do wrong. It even enables the offenders to observe undetected, and perhaps with sadistic relish, the impact of their actuations on their victims.

Because it is effected through cell phones and computers, cyberbullying has no fixed venue. It could be done anywhere and wherever the offender and his instrument of transmission may be. The offender can send his messages from miles away or from a seat next to his victim. Schools, though, are very common sites of cyberbullying and minors constitute the greater number of its victims.

In addition, technology allows, without much trouble on the part of the doer, the repeated sending of the messages, automatically in timed intervals at whatever time of day or night.

And, because the victim is almost inseparable from his own handheld gadget, he is vulnerable anywhere and wherever he might be, in a crowd as part of a big audience or all alone at the back pew of a lonely church. His only defense is to turn his receiver off; but then, that isolates him from innocent incoming messages, a number of which is necessary, even awaited.

The modes of commission are just as numerous. The methods run the whole gamut from direct insults and threatening remarks, to the publication in cyberspace of derogatory material, to distributing private photos (with or without any accompanying malicious captions), to outright defaming, like pasting the victims face on anothers body with unflattering effect.

The effect on the victim can be devastating, especially if the victim has a prior vulnerability. The often-cited story is that of an American girl who opened an account with a social networking site. Soon she started getting messages from a person with whom she became friends. The tenor of the messages from her friend turned for the worse and soon the poor girl was at the receiving end of threats, insults and demeaning remarks. The situation got to be so stressful on her; she committed suicide three weeks before she was 14.
Other countries have taken serious steps to combat the effect of cyberbullying. In the United States, United Kingdom and other jurisdictions, businesses and organizations have formed coalitions to instill awareness of the problem and assist in its prevention and punishment.

At least seven states in America have passed laws against digital harassment. Among the first was California's Assembly Bill 86 in 2008, which authorizes school administrators to discipline students who are found guilty of cyberbullying. In the United Kingdom, a ruling was handed down making the Internet service provider responsible for the content of the transmitted messages.

In the Philippines, the problem is not, to my knowledge, as serious as elsewhere. But it is certainly not too early for the formulation of appropriate policies and measures to prevent cyberbullying and punish its perpetrators.

Ricardo J. Romulo is a senior partner of Romulo Mabanta Buenaventura Sayoc & De Los Angeles.

By Ricardo Romulo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:46:00 07/16/2010
cyber bullying in philippines

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