Cyberstalking and Cyberharassment - What They Are and What To Do About It

What is Cyberstalking?

The first five entries in a Google search show five different definitions, but all agree that it has to do with the use of electronic communication to bother someone. That electronic communication could be through the use of social networks, email, texting, instant messages, in blog entries, other use of the Internet and apps. If it involves a credible threat, it’s considered to be more serious – in fact, it’s against the law.

What is a credible threat?

The California Civil Code (1708.7) says it is a “verbal or written threat, including that communicated by means of an electronic communication device, or a threat implied by a pattern of conduct, including, but not limited to, acts in which a defendant directly, indirectly, or through third parties, by any action, method, device, or means, follows, harasses, monitors, surveils, threatens, or interferes with or damages the plaintiff’s property, or a combination of verbal, written, or electronically communicated statements and conduct, made with the intent and apparent ability to carry out the threat so as to cause the person who is the target of the threat to reasonably fear for his or her safety or the safety of his or her immediate family.”

In other words, a threat made by someone who is capable of carrying it out, or a pattern of behavior that makes the victim reasonably believe that the person is likely to carry it out.

There are some shades of gray here. For instance, an individual may feel threatened by a pattern of behavior from the cyberstalker, but feeling threatened is not often enough for law enforcement to take action. In general, law enforcement personnel have too much to do on too few resources to take action on the many thousands of frightened individuals who approach with a feeling, or by pointing to computer symptoms they don’t fully understand.

Several friends on the force have told me what it takes for a police report to lead to police action.

  • A child in danger, including the existence of child pornography.
  • The loss/theft of $1,000 or more in property (which, for a business, can include intellectual property)
  • A truly credible threat. Not, “You better watch your back,” or even, “You ought to die,” and definitely not something that would be meaningful only to you. But, “I’m going to shoot you in the head tomorrow,” would definitely qualify as a credible threat.

A quick Google search for “cyberstalking arrest” turns up 163,000 results. But a read through those results will show that people get rarely get arrested just for cyberstalking. It’s cyberstalking and breaking a restraining order, cyberstalking and physical harassment, cyberstalking and making threatening phone calls, cyberstalking and assault. It’s almost as if cyberstalking is a charge that is used to increase the sentence against an offender of an additional crime.

But this is changing. States are slowly creating laws that approach making electronic harassment a crime all by itself. California and a few other states have recently outlawed revenge porn (the nonconsensual distribution of intimate images). A recently updated list of these states’ laws can be found at the C.A. Goldberg Law website. Note that some of the links here require a bit of reading to get to the revenge porn part. For instance, the California law link has the revenge porn part more than 10,000 words (647 (j) (4) (A)) into the 23,000 word statute – but it’s in there!

CA Penal code 639-653, and 422 cover the law in this area in California.

It’s still a fight to get cyberharassment and cyberstalking laws passed. A law passed in California this year requires businesses with 50 or more employees to provide 2 hours of harassment and abusive behavior prevention training to supervisors every 2 years. That’s 1 hour out of every 2,000, or 1/20 of 1% of supervisor’s time at work. Seems a little weak to me. And yet it took decades to pass AB2053.

The National Conference of Sate Legislatures provides another list with links to various other state laws dealing with cyberstalking and cyberharassment, at NCSL

What to do when being cyberharassed?

Block them if you can, and don’t respond. Under no means reveal your personal information to a cyberharasser. Do report cyberharassers to the website from which they promulgate their attacks, such as FaceBook. Take screenshots and keep records of the offender’s action. If you do feel the need to take legal action, such records may be valuable evidence.

There are groups that name and shame non-anonymous Internet creeps that are found trolling dating sites and the like. But bear in mind that the harasser may be part of a group as well. And of course, if they are anonymous or operating under a pseudonym, then naming them is of no consequence to them as they can simply change their avatar, user name, and virtual identity.

It is possible to bring a civil suit against a known cyberharasser, and even to bring suit against a “John Doe” or “Jane Doe” in order to gain subpoena power to find out the identity of the creep. Speaking to such civil suits, the Atlantic online magazine says, victims may be able to claim the torts of defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, harassment, and public disclosure of private fact, but filing a case like this is a very expensive and time-consuming process, not to mention emotionally draining.

The author of this article was the computer expert for a plaintiff who just won 7 million dollars from a very popular hip-hop star for having posted an unauthorized sex video online. But lawyers’ fees were in the stratosphere as well.

State and other countries’ (Australia and India) laws on the subject can be found at the Halt Abuse website.

Consider some of the resources below for aid in fighting online abuse and even tools to help.

Times are changing; laws, teaching tools, and even online tools for blocking, avoiding, and even educating harassers are becoming more available. We’re not there yet, but there’s hope that in time, we’ll cross a threshold where the advantage will be to those who expect a civil experience online.

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