Cyber-Bullying, Cyber-Harassment, Cyber-Stalking and You: Protecting Yourself Under the Law
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A while back I wrote some pieces concerning the Penny Arcade "Dickwolves" controversy. Considering the large subsection of individuals who felt threatened by the caustic harassment from both sides of the debate, it seemed prudent to create a clear and simple guide concerning things like cyber-bullying, cyber-harassment, and cyber-stalking.
Most states have enacted laws criminalizing this behavior. This is beneficial to those who have been subject to online harassment, but unfortunately many fear that they have no recourse when threatened on the Internet. Hopefully this article will alleviate some of that fear.
This is a particular issue in games—after all, we’re dealing with a naturally competitive environment composed in great part by a very vocal youth community. Online communities are rife with harassment, mud-slinging, and douche-baggery in general. Anyone active in the WoW PvP community or X-Box Live knows exactly what I’m talking about so I don’t feel the need to extrapolate. Dealing with dicks is part and parcel with being anonymous on the Internet.
It’s important to note that most of these crimes are governed by state law, although there are some federal laws addressing this matter (such as 18 U.S.C. 875(c), which criminalizes interstate communications that contain threats to harm another person). Not all states treat all three acts equally or as illegal. However, almost every state has enacted some law addressing this matter—furthermore, many countries outside of the US have adopted similar policies to prevent cyber-bullying and other cyber-crimes that threaten or lead to individual harm. Countries in Europe, for example, have entered into an agreement with social networking sites to offset the harm caused by bullying and cyber-bullying.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, cyber-bullying is defined as the “willful and repeated use of cell phones, computers, and other electronic communication devices to harass and threaten others.” This definition is further refined by each state. Some limit bullying to primarily obscene speech or sexual harassment, while others have enforced laws creating new curriculums for schools solely targeted at preventing both physical and cyber-bullying. Most states have enacted reporting requirement when bullying is apparent.
Unfortunately, the reality is that we’re dealing with kids, schools, and local politics. Most acts of bullying are shuttled aside or swept under the rug due to parental influence and a fear of damaging the school’s reputation. As a result bullying, including but not limited to cyber-bullying, is a profligate problem in our school systems. According to the i-Safe foundationone out of three young people have experienced some form of threat or bullying online. Over half of those children don’t tell their parents when this kind of bullying occurs. Other studies have reported similar statistics.
Lack of reporting and the resulting failure to enforce state and local laws against cyber-bullying render many of these laws useless. Absent an active and ongoing effort on the part of parents and educators to protect students there is little chance that this problem will be resolved. As a result many states have enacted laws that specifically require schools to address these issues. Others have enacted strict reporting guidelines regarding bullying. While not 100% effective, it is clear that most states and countries recognize that this is an ongoing problem that requires the attention of everyone in their respective communities.
According to NCIS about 40 states have enacted laws against cyber-harassment. How these laws are enforced varies from state to state. The definition of harassment also varies. Furthermore many have applied older state codes (i.e., North Carolina) regarding telephone harassment to Internet harassment generally.
For the most part cyber-harassment means the use of electronic communications to alarm, intimidate, threaten, terrify, or incite a violent or objectionable response from another person. Sexual harassment and the use of obscene language is frequently targeted as an example of harassment under these laws. The problem with this is establishing the threshold for what constitutes “harassment”.
In a well-known case in 1995 a University of Michigan student was charged under the federal interstate communications law referenced above (18 USC SS.875(c)) due to a story he posted on a usenet group. The story depicted the violent kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder of a woman named after a student in his class. However, all charges were later dropped due to insufficient evidence that he actually had any plans to carry out those activities.
Freedom of speech really does come into play here. At what point should the government step in to regulate whether someone’s Internet conversation steps outside of the boundaries of free speech and becomes language tantamount to harassment? It is rarely the case on the Internet that only one party is at fault—frequently many parties are engaged in an exchange of what can only be described as really bad behavior that is not advisable for a normal (or even abnormal) human being. When does this behavior translate to “fighting words” or other harmful speech that transcends first amendment protection? Unfortunately neither the Federal nor most State governments have a sure litmus test for this, and for good reason.
This presents a problem for netizens—when is a troll just being a troll, and when are they sincerely posing a threat? Some states, like Arizona, are fairly clear on what constitutes harassment. Others are more subjective, leaving it up to the victim’s response. Others (such as Delaware) rely on the sentiments of the attacker to determine whether the language constitutes harassment.
There is no question that cyber-harassment can lead to clear and substantial harm to the intended victim. If you truly feel threatened by someone’s online taunts you are well within your rights to contact both the website host and your local authorities so you can prevent this kind of problem from happening in the future. Continuing to engage those who threaten you in this manner is without question your worst course of action. By doing so you put yourself and those around in danger in the event that the individual in question lives up to those threats.
About 37 states have enacted cyber-stalking laws. The upshot is that states that don’t have a cyber-harassment law tend to have a cyber-stalking law and vice versa. Many states have both. Cyber-stalking is less ambiguous than cyber-harassment as it refers to a direct and real threat of physical harm. As a result penalties for cyber-stalking are also far more severe and typically include significant jail time.
Many cyber regulations are a blend of both cyber-stalking and cyber-harassment—they are simply criminalized on different levels. As a result it is fairly difficult to come up with a uniform approach to handling this ongoing threat. However, there is some comfort in knowing that there is always some recourse we can take when faced with this problem.
The End Game
I’m not writing this solely for the benefit of victims of Internet harassment. I’m writing this for you obnoxious trolls, too. You could go to jail, kiddos. Quit it. You may be on a downward spiral towards Federal prison at the age of 16, you ignorant little brats. Seriously. Knock it the hell off.
For the victims: sorry for your suffering, but I know that at least a few of you are at least partially responsible by continuing to engage in vitriolic diatribe with these idiots. So you knock it off too. If you seriously feel threatened you have a legal toolkit and community guidelines to manage this sort of problem. Stop dragging it out and deal with it like a responsible adult. Upshot if you’re under 18? Penalties are way higher and most cyberbullying laws specifically address other juvenile offenders. You don’t have an excuse to not report.
I acknowledge the barriers—many schools and towns want to ignore the existence of bullying and harassment. You’re probably feeling threatened and burdened under the weight of way more pressure than your narrow shoulders should have to bear. But if you don’t speak out no one will do it for you. It’s scary and horrible and I want to hug you all and tell you it’s going to be okay (I mean this sincerely and not in a creepy way), but there’s a good chance it won’t be. Still, don’t give up. There are adults out there who will take you seriously and do their best to help you. I sincerely hope they find you.
If you’re an adult, suck it up buttercup. It’s well past time for you to stand on your own two feet and defend yourself like a grown adult instead of responding in kind. You have the means to defend yourself when you are being harassed, so do something about it. When you feed the trolls you become part of the problem, not the solution.
The laws aren’t really the biggest issue here. It’s how we think. We’re all people. We should treat one another as such. Bullying, harassment and stalking all come down to the same fundamental psychological damage. Sociopaths and human monsters exist and need to be dealt with accordingly. But I’d like to think there are more of us than them, so let’s not lose hope as we work towards a less hostile gaming community.