Where do we draw the line for aiding and abetting in a digital age?

image via weareallcriminals.org

Story time:

Once upon a time, I had a really bad panic attack. This was the last really bad panic attack I had before I decided it was finally time to get some professional medical help, largely because of what I ended up trying to do at 10:00 p.m. on a Sunday to get rid of the large pressure on my chest…

Trying to find somewhere to buy weed.

Full disclosure: I have yet to successfully purchase drugs in my nearly thirty years of life. I still don’t understand where people actually get drugs. This is why I turned to the internet, Googling where someone might possibly acquire some marijuana in the lovely metropolis of Hamilton.

You might think this is crazy. You might start crying when you hear this story. That’s probably a pretty rational reaction, but there does actually happen to be a website that details not only where you can expect to acquire weed in Hamilton, but what you can expect the vendors to be wearing and what kinds of weed, for what prices, you can expect to be available.

Although, apparently the information on this website is much less accurate on a Sunday evening at 10:00 p.m. But I digress.

If the mens rea for aiding and abetting is an intent to assist the principal offender in committing the crime which you know they are going to commit, and the punishment for aiding and abetting is the same as for the principle offence, are the creators of this website thus – should they be found and charged with a crime at all – to be charged with the act of trafficking drugs? Likewise, is every teenager who texts the number of their friend who has a plant in their basement to their other friend looking for some dope guilty of trafficking drugs? Essentially, is every digital step we take – big, like the creation of a website, and small, like hitting enter on a Facebook message – a step that commits an indictable offence, potentially worth life in prison?

I think this goes beyond the apparently ridiculous idea of websites devoted to where to find weed and teenagers passing along some drug dealer’s digits. What about that time on 4Chan, when people inarguably aided and abetted a person in his attempt to commit suicide by lighting himself on fire in his dorm room? Are each of these people, shit-posting some stupid comment to someone they probably think is another internet troll, guilty of manslaughter, and potentially also facing life in jail? What about the person who publishes online a how-to guide for hacking, or a story, satirical or not, that presents as a step-by-step instructional for getting away with murder? Are these people on the hook for  penalties ranging from a class B misdemeanour, to a class B felony, to an indictable offence again carrying life in prison?

If we hold that these digital tracks are indeed aiding and abetting, what does that say about potential infringements to the right to free speech? Yes, it’s not exactly the most moral of acts to tell an internet stranger to kill themselves, but do the potentially sarcastic comments of 200 people on a 4Chan forum constitute a pressing and substantial harm to society on a whole? Does the person who writes a clearly ironic piece on how to get away with murder (even if it is somehow still more realistic than the Shonda Rimes show by the same name) pose such a threat to the social fabric that his right to publish that piece should be limited? Is the person who writes a comment on some buried-deep-in-the-internet site (for some angry kid on the other side of the world to read and learn a bit about coding and hacking) such a menace to society that their right to say what they want to say, where they want to say it should be revoked? Where do we draw the line?

My attempting-to-buy-drugs-as-someone-who-wasn’t-cool-in-highschool story, as ridiculous as it seems in writing, is even more ridiculous to hear in person, and so I don’t have a perfectly-poignant Kiyani answer to share. But I remain actually, seriously interested to hear what people think about this. We live in a digital world, and the fact truly stands that many of the actions which constitute aiding and abetting today take place with the aid of some digital technology or social media. As such, I do wonder how these technological advances will continue to shape and potentially alter our understanding of the law.

– Alyssa Jervis, 2016

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