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Nova Scotia Underage ‘Sexting Ring’ Trial Will Test New Law

But parents of bullied teens who committed suicide say more preventative measures are needed.

by Manisha Krishnan
Aug 15 2016, 6:46pm

Rehtaeh Parsons was 17 when she committed suicide after a photo of her allegedly being sexually assaulted was circulated. Photo via Facebook.

A group of teenage boys in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia will stand trial this week for allegedly creating a "sexting ring" through which they shared nude images of their female peers using a Dropbox account.

Two 18-year-olds and four 15-year-olds have been charged with distributing intimate images without consent and possession and distribution of child pornography and will be heading to youth criminal court Wednesday. The boys, arrested following a 13-month investigation that involved the RCMP and the FBI, are accused of circulating pictures of 20 teenage girls without consent.

The law against distributing intimate images without consent was added to the Criminal Code in March 2015, giving police the ability to charge people for distributing photos or videos without consent in which the subject is partially nude, nude, or engaged in explicit sexual activity. According to a recent study, one in four sexts are shared with other people.

Read more: Canada Needs To Catch Up To The Present With Cyberbullying Laws That Work

Bridgewater Police Chief John Collyer told the Canadian Press the laws provide cops with a necessary tool in addressing cyber crimes.

"Whether it's hit the right balance or not in terms of severity, and keeping in mind we're dealing with young people ... time will tell," he said.

The legislation comes after the 2013 suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons, the Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia teen who hung herself after she was allegedly gang raped. Photos of the assault were spread around Parsons' hometown, resulting in Parsons being tormented by her peers.

Parsons' dad Glen Canning told VICE the sexting trial signifies a "very big learning curve" for the community in terms of making people realize the gravity of distributing intimate images without consent.

"This isn't boys being boys, this is beyond that. This is something that could really really hurt somebody."

He pointed out that because the boys are young offenders, a conviction won't follow them around for the rest of their lives. However, sharing these kinds of photographs could do long-lasting damage to victims, as was the case with his daughter.

"It followed her to other high schools, it followed her at night when she was at home and getting messages from people, it followed her everywhere."

In December, the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia struck down the province's cyberbullying law prompted by Parsons' death, ruling it unconstitutional and a "colossal failure." The Cyber-Safety Act, which allowed courts to stop cyberbullies from posting negative comments online, was deemed too broad; it was quashed by a case of involving a failed business partnership between grown men.

David Fraser, a Halifax-based lawyer who launched the constitutional challenge against the Cyber-Safety Act, told VICE it was a "dumpster fire" because it ran the risk of intruding on freedom of speech. (The Nova Scotia government is currently working on tabling a revised version.)

On the other hand, Fraser, who specializes in technology-based law, said the distributing intimate images without consent offence is closing a gap.

Fraser said when it comes to teens sharing sexts of other teens, the child pornography charge seems strong.

"It's a huge hammer to hit somebody with, because at least in my mind, what you think of in terms of child pornography, you're thinking about adults exploiting children." He said he's interested to hear why police in the sexting trial chose to apply child porn charges to some of the accused and not others.

Fraser also said the idea that young girls are stupid for sending nude photos in the first place amounts to "victim blaming."

"It's like abstinence-only education. You know people are going to do it whether you like it or not, it seems to be part of modern relationships," he said. "Wagging fingers and saying don't do it isn't helpful."

Canning said he thinks more education should be a bigger priority than punitive laws. He believes his daughter's story should be shared by educators as a warning of the worst-case scenario involving cyberbullying.

Carol Todd, whose daughter Amanda committed suicide at the age of 15 in 2012 after posting a YouTube video in which she said she was being extorted by a man who had partially nude images of her, told VICE schools aren't being proactive enough when it comes to preventative measures.

"I don't think we can be afraid of sharing real life stories," she said. "Maybe that's what these kids are needing because what we're doing right now is not 100 percent effective."

Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.

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