While constitutionalists and libertarians can argue about the rights of free speech on the Internet, it’s an entirely different matter when you’re the victim of sustained harassment or threats of physical violence. According to a Pew Research poll, 73% of adult Internet users have seen someone harassed online, and 40% have been victims.
Another Pew poll states that one in ten adult Internet users (10% male, 6% female) have been physically threatened or continually harassed for a sustained period. Pew also reports that teens are more likely than adults to experience hostile or cruel behavior online with real-world consequences. More than one-quarter of adult Internet users (29%) report experiences that resulted in face-to-face arguments, physical fights, or got them in trouble at work, and more than half of teenage Internet users (52%) report similar consequences.
In early 2015, former Major League Baseball star and outspoken conservative blogger Curt Schilling responded to cyber threats against his 17-year-old daughter by tracking down and publicly identifying two young men who had tweeted obscene comments about her. As a consequence, one man, a graduate student working part-time as a ticket seller for the New York Yankees, was immediately fired. The second was suspended from college.
When told of the consequences faced by the tweeters, Schilling responded on his personal blog, 38 Pitches: “In the real world, you get held accountable for the things you say, and if you are not careful that can mean some different things.” However, as reported by Asbury Park Press, Rutgers-Newark law professor Bernard W. Bell said the offensive tweets in the Schilling case might not meet the legal standard for criminal prosecution, raising the question as to whether the line on free speech needs to be redrawn.
To the dismay of free speech advocates, many people are questioning whether the definition of the First Amendment has gone too far. Authors Nadia Kayyali and Danny O’Brien, writers for the conservative Electronic Frontier Foundation and avid advocates for free speech on the Internet, recognize that harassment “can be profoundly damaging to the free speech and privacy rights of the people targeted.” They promote better technology, improved police education, and a community response to stigmatize abusers.
Online Harassment and the Law
Online harassment can take many forms:
- Threats of Violence: These threats are often sexual, as in the Schilling case
- Spreading Lies as if They Were Facts: Saying people have a sexually transmitted disease, a criminal record, or claiming they are sexual predators, for example
- Posting Sensitive Personal Information: While the typical case involves nudity or instances of sexual activity, this information could also include disclosing Social Security numbers or personal health data
- Repeated Technological Attacks: While many online abusers lack the technical skills to mount serious sustained attacks, there have been cases where email, websites, and social media accounts have been shut down or maliciously manipulated
While there are federal and state laws governing online activities, especially those involving sex or minors, technology has outpaced the ability of law to define or control harassment. As a consequence, victims are often left on their own to pursue remedies and halt harassment.
Victims of cyberharassment have two legal remedies under the law to pursue their tormentors.
1. Civil Suits
Under tort law, the victim can sue the perpetrator claiming defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, harassment, and public disclosure of private facts. However, the process is time-consuming and expensive. Many victims lack the public position or financial capability of Curt Schilling and actress Jennifer Lawrence (the subject of stolen nude photographs subsequently posted online) to pursue legal remedies. In addition, filing a lawsuit is likely to further publicize the event, increasing the trauma for the victim.
2. Criminal Actions
According to Danielle Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law and author of “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace,” few police forces have the resources or training to pursue cyberharassment cases. The following public examples illustrate the typical response when confronted with such a case:
- Blogger Rebecca Watson describes an incident in 2005 when she reported an email death threat to the Boston police who said there wasn’t much they could do, as the abuser lived in another state. According to Watson, the police representative admitted that “nothing would come of it unless someone one day put a bullet in my brain, at which point they’d have a pretty good lead.”
- Journalist Amanda Hess reported an incident in 2014 where a male tweeted her the message, “I’m looking you up, and when I find you, I’m going to rape you and remove your head.” His final tweet was, “You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you. I promise you this.” When she called 911 and reported the threat to a Palm Springs police officer, he asked, “What is Twitter?” Hess reports that some Internet veterans believe that such threats are so commonplace that they are “meaningless, and that expressing alarm is foolish.” In other words, they should be ignored.
Even in cases where the police pursue abusers, the outcome is uncertain due to the language of the law and the difficulty of proving credible intent. The 2013 case of Ian Barber is not unique. Barber had been charged with aggravated harassment for posting naked pictures of a girlfriend to his Twitter account and sending the photos to her employer and sister. However, the harassment law required that the abuser have direct contact with the victim – so since Barber had not sent the pictures to his ex, the judge ruled him not guilty.
Citron, quoted in The Atlantic, reports that only half of the states have updated their laws in the last five years, and that the language of the laws remains a problem. She favors technologically neutral language, citing the 2013 amendment to the Federal Telecommunications Harassment Statute where Congress replaced the words “harass any person at the called number or who received the communications” with “harass any person.” She also suggests amending section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that gives website operators immunity for their subscribers’ postings.
Social Media Sites and Harassment
Popular social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Pinterest are aware that Internet harassment threatens their business models and promotes legal restrictions and potential liability. As a consequence, many of them have introduced new tools to combat cyberharassment. However, despite their efforts, instances continue to appear.
Certain sites popular with teenagers are more often forums for cyberbullying and harassment as they focus on anonymity and offer little or no oversight of content. In a Huffington Post article, Michael Gregg, COO of network security consulting firm Superior Solutions, listed eight social networking sites and apps that every parent should know:
Any cell phone, email service, or social media platform can be a vehicle for cyberbullying, and there have been a number of publicized cases that have ended in a child’s suicide. For example, in 2013, a 12-year-old girl jumped from concrete silo to her death, according to ABC News. As many as 15 girls allegedly participated in her harassment over a boyfriend, and a 14-year-old and 12-year-old were arrested for stalking. Criminal charges were later dropped and the bullies have entered counseling.
While not suggesting that kids be banned from such sites, Gregg recommends that parents talk openly about the risks they carry and use parental control programs to safeguard them. According to TechRadar, KP Web Protection, Spyrix Free Keylogger, Windows Live Family Safety, Kidlogger, and Naomi are the five best free parental control software programs currently available. Web browser Mozilla allows parents to block certain websites and filter content. Commercial programs such as Net Nanny and WebWatcher are also available.
How to Stop Cyber Bullying and Harassment
It is important to note that any physical threats toward you or your family should be reported to the police. While actual attacks from Internet abusers are relatively rare, they do occur. Here are ways you can neutralize bullying.
1. Notify the Abuser to Cease and Desist
Clearly tell the abuser, via the media where the abuse occurred, to stop communicating with you in any way. Plain language, such as, “Do not contact me in any way,” is recommended. Save a copy of your notification, as it will be useful if you decide to pursue civil or criminal action.
2. Refuse to Respond to the Abuse
Fortunately, the majority of harassment cases, while discomfiting to the victim, can be handled by refusing to interact with the abuser entirely. The majority of bullies are looking for a reaction – when they fail to get one, they go away. Other than notifying the abuser to stop, do not respond or try to explain your position. Experts often suggest the best response is no response.
3. Save Everything
Save everything, including emails and chat logs. If the abuse appears on a website, take screenshots and save copies on your computer and have a trusted third party do the same. Record links, text, and any names or aliases the abuser might go by.
If you receive abusive phone calls, hang up – do not engage with the harasser – and contact your telephone provider. Save any telephonic recorded messages as well. And, if you receive physical mail from the abuser, keep everything, the envelope included. Use a large plastic bag and handle the physical evidence as little as possible to avoid fingerprints.
4. Use Blocking and Filtering Software
Always be careful who you give your private information to and who you choose to “friend.” Strangers and casual acquaintances are the most likely abusers, so controlling your social groups is the first step in protection.
Regularly check your privacy settings, and don’t friend anyone you do not know. Social media sites generally have blocking software, so use it whenever you suspect someone has crossed the line or makes you uncomfortable. On Twitter, consider The Block Bot, a service that allows you to add people to a shared block list for generalized abuse. In cases of Internet harassment, complain in writing to the Internet service provider (ISP) of the server that runs the email, chatroom, or instant messaging platform used by the abuser. The Network Abuse Clearinghouse provides detailed information about finding the domain or server used by an abuser and the process for reporting abuse to the hosting provider.
If abuse comes via email, use the filtering capability to direct it into a folder so you can save incoming emails without having to read the content. If necessary, get another email address.
5. Limit Your Use of Geotagging and Location-Tracking Software
While it may be convenient to inform friends of your travels, geotagging – adding geographical identification data to photos, SMS messages, and other digital media – may also alert potential stalkers or abusers to your location. The website icanstalkyou.com provides detailed information on disabling geotagging on your smartphone.
Many mobile phone and tablet apps feature location tracking, even when you’re not using the apps. Users inadvertently agree to this service when downloading and speeding through the permission pop-ups. According to InformationWeek, Facebook offers an opt-in feature called NearbyFriends that pinpoints your location within a half-mile radius on an electronic map. Google also tracks your movement history including the time at which you visited each location. InformationWeek also reports that Twitter was testing a location tracking service in December 2014 as well.
These features can generally be turned off by visiting the privacy or security settings for each app. For iPhones and Android phones, the location tracking capabilities can be turned off in the settings section.
6. Don’t Reveal Private Information
Some experts suggest notifying your close friends of the abuse so they don’t inadvertently reveal private information about you or your family. Similarly, be sure to respect other people’s privacy – don’t post the following without permission:
- Photos of others
- Phone numbers
- Email addresses
- Physical addresses of home and work
- Online identity information
- Employer and medical information
- Gender and sexuality information
As the level of online abuse has increased, some writers have suggested more drastic steps to publicly identify and punish those who harass anonymously. Some victims, such as Schilling, have unmasked abusers by publicly discussing their names or contacting their employers. And Jade Walker, overnight editor of the Huffington Post, recommends, “If you see something, say something. Don’t allow trolls to take over your blogs or social media feeds. If you spy terrible comments, delete them. If the abusers continue to spew their hatred at you, ban their IP address. And if you notice that trolls are attacking someone else, don’t ignore the problem. Stand up for the victim and make it clear that such cruelty is not acceptable under any circumstances.”
Protecting Your Children on the Internet
Children and young adults are especially vulnerable on the Internet. While computers are wonderful learning tools, they also expose children to unwanted content and inappropriate adult contact.
Cyberbullying – when a child, preteen, or teen is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted – is a growing problem for families and schools alike. It is especially pernicious because it follows the victims into their homes. Kids perceived as “different” may be at higher risk and can fall into depression, substance abuse, and even suicide.
If you suspect your child is being cyberbullied, immediately notify school officials and the parents of the offender. According to stopbullying.gov, the warning signs of being bullied can include the following:
- Changes in eating habits, such as suddenly skipping meals or binge-eating. Kids may come home from school hungry because they did not eat lunch.
- Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares.
- Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, or not wanting to go to school.
- Self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, self-harm, or talking about suicide.
While your child may not be a victim of cyberbullying, all children should be taught that silence when others are being hurt is unacceptable. The old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is not true. Emotional pain is very real and should be taken seriously.
Internet Safety Tips for Children and Teens
- Educate your children about sexual victimization and potential online dangers.
- Keep the computer in a common area where everyone has access; review messages and pictures on your kids’ phones.
- Use parental controls, but recognize that they are not foolproof. Maintain access to your kids’ accounts and check their messages periodically.
- Avoid social media sites with limited or confusing privacy settings and GPS location features.
Helpful Internet Sources for Internet Abuse
Internet harassment is a growing problem. The conflict between the rights of free speech guaranteed by the Constitution and the abuse and invasion of privacy of innocent victims will ultimately be determined by the courts. In the meantime, there seem to be few legal or social limits placed on Internet trolls and websites targeting vulnerable people. According to Professor Citron, revenge porn – sexually explicit pictures posted online without the consent of the individual – is a business model. “There are over 40 sites, they have advertisers, they charge for the take-down of photos.” In other words, they extort the victims.
Perhaps the loss of posters’ anonymity is the key to controlling their abusive behavior. In 2012, Gawker revealed the identity of one of the most notorious trolls on the Internet, Michael Brutsch, aka “Violentacrez,” a 49-year-old employee of a Texas financial services company who created sections on Reddit such as “Jailbait,” “Chokeabitch,” “Rapebait,” and “Incest.” When contacted, he pleaded with the reporter not to reveal his real name, claiming that “I do my job, go home, watch TV, and go on the Internet. I just like getting people riled up in my spare time. I believe [that revealing my identity] will affect negatively on my employment.”
He was right. The financial services company fired him within 24 hours of his exposure. Like the young men abusing Schilling’s young daughter, Violentacrez discovered that there are consequences to actions.
What tips can you offer to handle online harrassment?