Federal Internet Law & Policy
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Cyberstalking Dont be a FOOL; The Law is Not DIY
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Many bad things in the real world become all the more horrifying in the virtual world. One of the more disturbing is cyberstalking. Like its physical world counterpart, Cyberstalking generally refers to the use of the Internet, e-mail, or electronic communications devices to "stalk" another person - where 'stalking' in the traditional sense means to engage in repeated harassing or threatening behavior (such as following a person, appearing at a person's home or workplace, making harassing telephone calls, or leaving written messages or objects) that places the victim in reasonable fear of death or bodily injury.

Yet cyberstalking is all the more disturbing in a few ways. First, the ability of the Internet to empower anonymous communication makes it all the harder for the victim and law enforcement to identify the perpetrator. Second, as the Internet constitutes the death of distance, the victim has no idea whether the perpetrator is 100 miles away, in the same city, or in the next cubicle. Finally, as will be seen, in the same way hackers can launch denial of service attacks, perpetrators can use the Internet to amplify the harassment, luring third parties to join into the ploy. Everything that is beneficial about the Internet that lowers barriers to access and makes communications easier likewise makes it easier for individuals to do bad deeds as well.

In the first successful prosecution under California's cyberstalking law, prosecutors in the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office reported obtained a guilty plea from a 50-year-old former security guard who used the Internet to solicit the rape of a woman who rejected his romantic advances. The defendant reportedly terrorized his 28-year-old victim by impersonating her in various Internet chat rooms and online bulletin boards, where he posted, along with her telephone number and address, messages that she fantasized of being raped. On at least six occasions, sometimes in the middle of the night, men knocked on the woman's door saying they wanted to rape her. The former security guard reportedly pleaded guilty in April 1999 to one count of stalking and three counts of solicitation of sexual assault. He faced up to six years in prison. [DOJ Report]

Generally, stalking is a matter for local police authorities. There are occasions where the situation rises to a federal matter. However, the Department of Justice has expressed misgivings about the adequacy of federal law to respond to cyberstalking. Federal law generally suffers from several fatal flaws. Generally the law deals only with direct communication between the perpetrator and the victim; where the perpetrator persuades third parties to be become participants and vehicles of the harassment, the law is inadequate. In addition, while a federal stalking law has passed, it involves instances of interstate travel; the perpetrator must travel across state lines making the law frequently inapplicable. [18 USC § 2261A]

USDOJ: How You Can Protect Against CyberStalking - And What to Do if You Are A Victim

Prevention Tips

  • Do not share personal information in public spaces anywhere online, nor give it to strangers, including in email or chat rooms. Do not use your real name or nickname as your screen name or user ID. Pick a name that is gender-and age-neutral. And do not post personal information as part of any user profiles.
  • Be extremely cautious about meeting online acquaintances in person. If you choose to meet, do so in a public place and take along a friend.
  • Make sure that your ISP and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) network have an acceptable use policy that prohibits cyberstalking And if your network fails to respond to your complaints, consider switching to a provider that is more responsive to user complaints.
  • If a situation online becomes hostile, log off and surf elsewhere. If a situation places you in fear, contact a local law enforcement agency.

What to Do If You Are Being Cyberstalked

  • If you are receiving unwanted contact, make clear to that person that you would like him or her not to contact you again.
  • Save all communications for evidence. Do not edit or alter them in any way. Also, keep a record of your contacts with Internet system administrators or law enforcement officials.
  • You may want to consider blocking or filtering messages from the harasser. Many email programs such as Eudora and Microsoft Outlook have a filter feature, and software can be easily obtained that will automatically delete emails from a particular email address or that contain offensive words. Chat room contact can be blocked as well. Although formats differ, a common chat room command to block someone would be to type: /ignore <person's screen name> (without the brackets). However, in some circumstances (such as threats of violence), it may be more appropriate to save the information and contact law enforcement authorities.
  • If harassment continues after you have asked the person to stop, contact the harasser's Internet Service Provider (ISP). Most ISP's have clear policies prohibiting the use of their services to abuse another person. Often, an ISP can try to stop the conduct by direct contact wit the stalker or by closing their account. If you receive abusive emails, identify the domain (after the "@" sign) and contact that ISP. Most ISP's have an email address such as abuse@(domain name) or postmaster@(domain name) that can be used for complaints. If the ISP has a website, visit it for information on how to file a complaint.
  • Contact your local police department and inform them of the situation in as much detail as possible. In appropriate cases, they may refer the matter to state or federal authorities. If you are not afraid of taking action, there are resources available to help you, Contact either: The National Domestic Violence Hotline, 800-799-SAFE (phone); 800-787-3224 (TDD) - A local women's shelter for advice and support.



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