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The digital age has given our generation a range of benefits – it is easier than ever to gather information and views about almost any topic, to share data and, of course, to find and communicate with people around the world.
But sadly, social media has also made it easier to harass, intimidate and threaten others from behind a computer screen – without having to face them in person.
The prevalence of online harassment and cyberbullying means that, more often than not, the perpetrators escape any form of sanctions, let alone a criminal prosecution.
But as 25-year-old Sydney man Zane Alchin recently discovered, this is not always the case – and harassing others through social media can have serious consequences.
Mr Alchin appeared in Newtown Local Court earlier this week charged with ‘using a carriage service to menace, harass or offend.’ The charge stems from a series of controversial and offensive comments posted from Alchin’s Facebook page earlier in the week about a young woman named Olivia Melville.
Ms Melville, a 23-year-old also from Sydney, made waves on social media after her Tinder profile was shared countless times. Her profile included a line from a song featuring the rapper Drake: ‘Type of girl that will suck you dry and eat some lunch with you.’
The line sparked controversy after another Tinder user, Chris Hall, screen-shotted her profile and posted it on his Facebook account, triggering a barrage of abuse from other Facebook users, including Mr Alchin.
Mr Alchin allegedly posted several offensive comments, including: ‘You’re all f***ing basic s**ts’ and ‘You know the best thing about a feminist they don’t get any action so when you rape them it feels 100 times tighter.’
Unsurprisingly, these comments caused outrage online, leading Ms Melville and a friend to start a Facebook page called ‘Sexual Violence Will Not Be Silenced’, as well as commence a petition on change.org urging the NSW Parliament to take more action against online sexual harassment. An excerpt from the petition reads:
We urge you to ensure that appropriate laws exist, that police have proper training, and that appropriate resources are available and processes are in place so that people are safe from cyber harassment.
An investigation attached to Newtown Police Station resulted in the charge being laid against Mr Alchin earlier this week. He appeared at Newtown Local Court on Thursday, where his criminal lawyer indicated that his client is likely to enter a plea of guilty on the next court date. The case has been adjourned until 8th December 2015.
According to media reports, Mr Alchin has also been fired from his job for breaching his employer’s social media policy.
The offence of ‘using carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence’ is contained in section 474.17 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code, which states that:
a) The person uses a carriage service; and
b) The person does so in a way (whether by the method of use or the content of a communication, or both) that reasonable persons would regard as being, in all the circumstances, menacing, harassing or offensive.
The law therefore imports an objective test: one which considers ‘the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults; and the literary, artistic or educational merit (if any) of the material’ when deciding whether it is ‘offensive.’
The section covers telephone transmissions (including SMS), emails, posts on social media and on other internet pages.
It applies across Australia and attracts a maximum penalty of 3 years imprisonment.
A number of technology-related laws, including the charge brought against Mr Alchin, were introduced by the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Telecommunications Offences and Other Measures) Act (No. 2) 2004.
However, some commentators suggest that the laws have not deterred internet users from engaging on online abuse or ‘trolling.’ Indeed, prosecutions are rarely brought against those who post offensive material online.
But this does not mean that everyone will escape prosecution. Rather, people are generally only prosecuted for very serious examples of the conduct.
In 2010, Queensland woman Jessica Cook pleaded guilty to the same offence after posting offensive comments and photographs on a Facebook tribute page dedicated to a murdered woman. She was handed a three-month ‘suspended prison sentence’ and was banned from using social media sites for the same period of time.
And in 2011, Sydney man Ronnie Usmanov was convicted of the offence and sentenced to six months imprisonment after he distributed naked photos of his ex-girlfriend on his Facebook page.
As these cases illustrate, the courts are certainly willing to take a strong stance against online bullying and harassment – so before you speak your mind on social media, it may be a good idea to take a step back and think about the potential consequences.