Defending Yourself Against Online Harassment
Recently I spoke to high school educators and support staff on the topic of bullying, with emphasis on cyber-bullying. With each passing year since the advent of the Internet, cyber-bullying has become more and more common among today’s youths, particularly among junior high and high school students who have greater access to online tools than elementary-level kids. Cyber-bullying can result in juvenile prosecutions but more often than not, if reported, problems are handled internally within school systems or sorted out by the parents of those involved.
Just as cyber-bullying has become a fast-growing issue in mainstream American society, so has “cyber-stalking,” also known as “cyber-harassment,” which generally (but not always) relates to adult-on-adult crimes.
Let’s assume your digital space is invaded somehow, with sexual harassment, violent messages, and threats. For example, let’s say your ex-girlfriend or former boyfriend (or spouse) is upset with you because you broke up with them. In a twisted form of retribution, they post demeaning photos of you, which may or may not involve nudity, on a social-media site or some other Internet venue. This can be a violation of federal or state laws regarding cyber-harassment, especially if you were the one who took the photo and never intended for its public release.
Or, let’s say you go out with someone only once and then that person won’t leave you alone. He (or she) messages photos of his genitalia to you on a regular basis. He (or she) constantly berates you for not responding to his/her text messages or solicitations for dates. It feels like an old-fashioned form of stalking – ever had someone follow you around for a few weeks, showing up when you least expect it?
Danielle Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law, recently was quoted in a magazine article on the topic of cyber-stalking. She said it can result in threats of violence (often sexual), spreading lies asserted as facts (like a person has herpes, a criminal record, or is a sexual predator), posting sensitive information online (whether that’s nude or compromising photos or social security numbers), and technological attacks (falsely shutting down a person’s social-media account). “Often, it’s a perfect storm of all these things,” she reportedly said.
Experts, such as Citron, say there are a handful of ways in which victims can address their attackers through the legal system, both civilly and criminally. But they are costly and invasive, and they don’t always result in justice. In recent years, however, states have become more active in passing laws against cyber-harassment and its many forms, and victims are better equipped to fight back than they were just five or 10 years ago.
In the civil court, victims of cyber attacks, from stalking to revenge porn to online bullying, can sue their harassers. They can claim defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, harassment. But, these types of cases often involve an expensive legal battle. And unfortunately, few victims have successfully been awarded a monetary judgment against their online harassers.
A person also can threaten to sue for a copyright violation if a website is displaying photos that were originally taken by the victim. Since copyright forms upon the creation of a work, generally it’s the photographer who holds the right to the image. Self-taken photos — nude or not — are owned by the photographer unless otherwise assigned, so a website displaying those photos without consent is violating copyright.
Here are a few other ways to fight back against online harassment:
Make a police report. All 50 states and the federal government, to some degree, have passed laws criminalizing cyber harassment or cyber stalking. Typically, violations are categorized as misdemeanors, but a conviction can result in jail time and fines.
Get a restraining order. A restraining order isn’t just for keeping somebody away from you physically. A court can use a restraining order to prohibit electronic contact as well. If you feel threatened or in danger because of an online harasser, you can petition the court for a restraining order. Many court web sites have the forms and instructions required for filing a restraining order.
Confused? Professional advice is becoming increasingly available to help sort out your options in this relatively new area of the law. Should you need more assistance, an experienced attorney could possibly assist you.