Cyber stalking and cyber harassment, a devastating and endemic problem

I’m amidst writing a book on cyber harassment and cyber stalking called Hate 3.0 (forthcoming Harvard University Press).  Cyber harassment refers to online behavior that causes a reasonable person to suffer severe emotional distress.  Cyber stalking has a more narrow meaning: it covers online behavior that causes a reasonable person to fear for her safety.  Cyber stalking and cyber harassment often involve explicit or implicit threats of violence, calls for others to hurt victims, privacy invasions, defamation, impersonation, and/or technological attacks.  The abuse tends to appear in e-mails, instant messages, blog entries, message boards, and/or sites devoted to tormenting individuals.  The online abuse may be accompanied by offline harassment, including abusive phone calls, vandalism, threatening mail, and/or physical assault.

Stalking and harassment via networked technologies is not a one-off problem.  Thousands upon thousands of cyber harassment and cyber stalking incidents occur annually.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 850,000 people in 2006 experienced stalking with a significant online component, such as threats over e-mail and text, attack sites devoted to victims, and/or harassment in chat rooms and blogs.[i]  A special 2009 report by the Department of Justice revealed that approximately 26,000 persons are victims of GPS stalking annually, including by cellphone.  There’s evidence that harassment via networked technologies are increasing.  College students encounter more sexually harassing speech in online interactions than in face-to-face ones.[ii]  Researchers predict that thirty percent of Internet users will face some form of cyber harassment in their lives.[iii]

Yet there are serious reporting gaps, some have to do with the information that’s collected.  The Location Privacy Protection Act of 2011(S. 1223), sponsored by Senator Al Franken (D-MN) and co- sponsored by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), aims to tackle a small part of this problem.  The bill would require the National Institute of Justice to issue a study on the use of location technology in dating violence, stalking and domestic violence; to report these crimes to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center; and to require the Attorney General to develop a training curriculum so that law enforcement, courts, and victims advocates can better investigate and prosecute crimes involving the misuse of geo-location data.  An excellent proposal, one I support whole heartedly.  So, too, victims groups are working hard to help document what’s going on and to educate victims, law enforcement, and the police on tackling it.  Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA) — with Jayne Hitchcock at the helm — has long been on the case.  Without My Consent, a group spearheaded by tireless advocates Colette Vogele and Erica Johnstone, has joined these efforts (I’m an adviser along with my co-blogger Dan Solove, Ryan Calo, Chris Hoofnagle, Jason Schultz, and others).  It is a non-profit organization seeking to combat online invasions of privacy.  Its resources are intended to empower individuals to stand up for their privacy rights and inspire meaningful debate about the internet, accountability, free speech, and the serious problem of online invasions of privacy.  The group is supported by the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law, the first legal clinic in the nation founded to provide students with the opportunity to represent the public interest in sound technology policy.  It’s also affiliated with the non-residents fellows program at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society.

[i] Katrina Baum et al., Bureau of Justice Statistics, Special Report No. NCJ 224527, Stalking Victimization in the United States (January 2009), 5.

[ii] M. Alexis Kennedy and Melanie A. Taylor, “Online Harassment and Victimization of College Students,” Justice Policy Journal 7, no. 1 (2010),

[iii] Bradford W. Reyns, “Being Pursued Online: Extent and Nature of Cyberstalking Victimization from a Lifestyle/Routine Activities Perspective,” (PhD diss., University of Cincinnati, May 7, 2010), 29–33, 98.

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