Amanda Todd sextortion case sets precedent, but more needs to be done, experts say
The conviction of Aydin Coban for the “sextortion” of British Columbia teenager Amanda Todd has prompted calls from lawyers and advocates for more regulation, resources and education in Canada to protect future victims.
Lianna McDonald, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, said Todd's case served as a warning, but Canada “failed to act.”
“Looking back, essentially nothing has been done to be proactive and actually address the issues that put kids at risk every day: platforms that allow anonymous adults to interact with our children in unsupervised digital spaces, any time or anywhere,” she said in a statement.
Coban, a Dutch national, was convicted on Saturday of extortion, harassment, communication with a young person to commit a sexual offence and possession and distribution of child pornography in relation to Todd.
She was 15 when she died by suicide in 2012, after years of harassment from 22 social media accounts that Crown attorneys said were controlled by Coban.
His sentencing hearing will be held in B.C. Supreme Court in September.
The jury's decision came days after Statistics Canada released data showing that police-reported extortion cases rose by nearly 300 per cent in the last decade. Police across the country have also been issuing warnings to the public about a drastic increase in sextortion scams targeting youth.
Monique St. Germain, general counsel with the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, said the organization was “very pleased” with the Coban verdict.
But it is calling for more regulation of social media companies, like Snapchat and Instagram, where the organization has found most of the harm to children occurs.
“We need governments to step in, and to put some guardrails in place with the tech industry so that we have safer products in the marketplace,” she said in an interview.
“If we take our child to a playground and they play on a play structure, we have trust in the fact that the manufacturers of that play structure have had to abide by certain laws to make that structure safe for our children to play on. It shouldn't be any different for the technology industry.”
Snapchat announced a new feature in Canada this week called Family Center that it says will “help parents get more insight into who their teens are friends with on Snapchat, and who they have been communicating with, without revealing any of the substance of those conversations.”
The Winnipeg-based Centre for Child Protection runs Cybertip, Canada's tip line for reporting online child sexual abuse. It said it has received “an unprecedented volume of reports from youth and sometimes their concerned parents about falling prey to aggressive sextortion tactics,” amounting to about 300 online extortion cases a month.
“Parents cannot keep up. Police cannot keep up,” St. Germain said.
Todd's mother, Carol Todd, has said the type of extortion her daughter suffered has become a global problem that needs to be better addressed by governments and law enforcement.
Her daughter's suicide gained international attention in 2012. Amanda Todd had posted a video in which she used flash cards to describe being tormented by an anonymous harasser. It has been watched nearly 15 million times.
Bill C-13, the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, was first introduced in 2013, following Todd's death, and aimed to combat online harassment by making it illegal to distribute intimate images of a person without their consent. At the time, Carol Todd criticized the privacy-related provisions in the bill.
“It's been 10 years since Bill C-13 was introduced. It needs to be revamped, and the word sextortion needs to be put in the Criminal Code somewhere,” Carol Todd said in an interview Friday, before Coban's conviction. “That's what we'll learn from this.”
But David Fraser, an internet and privacy lawyer with the Canadian law firm McInnes Cooper in Halifax, said creating a new law specific to sextortion isn't necessary, something made evident by Coban's conviction.
He said generalized laws allow police to pursue charges more freely, because technological advancements far outpace law-making. He did, however, identify two benefits to proscribing sextortion explicitly: clarity for law enforcement and recognition for victims and the emotional harm they endured.
“Extortion that takes place online is still Criminal Code extortion,” he said. “It's worth a conversation, but I did say shortly after the death of Amanda Todd that our laws were sufficient to take care of that. What failed her, it appears, was the legal system rather than the laws.”
Fraser said police have often failed to translate existing laws into an online context and he is calling for more resources and training for law enforcement.
“I believe that what was not in place at the time, unfortunately, when Amanda Todd was alive, was the will to investigate and prosecute the offence,” he said. “The fact that it worked here will hopefully foster and spur on perhaps a higher level of willingness to engage in and pursue investigations where the victim is in Canada, but the perpetrator is likely outside of the country.”
Coban was extradited to Canada in 2020 from the Netherlands, where he had been convicted of similar allegations to those in the Todd case. He was sentenced in Amsterdam in 2017 to almost 11 years in prison for cyberbullying dozens of young girls and gay men.
Darren Laur, chief training officer at White Hatter, an internet safety and digital literacy education company based in Victoria, said he wasn't surprised by the verdict given the evidence, and is pleased that it has established precedent.
“It's good to see that with this conviction, it does create case law specific to sextortion under existing extortion laws. The laws have been there. We've just been waiting for cases to go to court to create case law to support the Criminal Code,” Laur said.
“What a lot of people don't understand is that the laws in the Criminal Code are drafted by government, but it's up to the courts to interpret the law and that's what case law is all about.”
Laur, who is a retired Victoria police sergeant, echoed Fraser's calls for more police resources and for more public education and understanding of virtual crimes.
“Police in our country don't have the time, resources or training to investigate these types of crimes,” he said. “We also need to continue to educate our age-appropriate kids in a scaffolded way about what this type of crime and other crimes are.”
The Department of Canadian Heritage said in a statement the federal government is working to create an approach to address harmful content online, including the possibility of a regulatory body.
“Canadians should be able to express themselves freely and openly without fear of harm online,” it said in the statement. “The Government of Canada is committed to taking the time to get this issue right and continuing to engage Canadians, stakeholders, and affected groups every step of the way on the road to tabling legislation as soon as possible.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 11, 2022.
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