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Online harassment of women is a problem. Here’s what to do about it.

(Photo by  <a href="">Ed Yourdon</a> )

If you're male, you might not realize how common it is for women to experience online harassment. The problem is particularly severe for bloggers, journalists and others who build a public profile online. And lest you dismiss "online harassment" as a mere annoyance, a new piece from writer Amanda Hess lays out just how frightening the experience can be:

A few hours earlier, someone going by the username “headlessfemalepig” had sent me seven tweets.... “Happy to say we live in the same state. Im looking you up, and when I find you, im going to rape you and remove your head.” There was more, but the final tweet summed it up: “You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you. I promise you this.”
My fingers paused over the keyboard. I felt disoriented and terrified. Then embarrassed for being scared, and, finally, pissed. On the one hand, it seemed unlikely that I’d soon be defiled and decapitated at the hands of a serial rapist-murderer. On the other hand, headlessfemalepig was clearly a deranged individual with a bizarre fixation on me. I picked up my phone and dialed 911.

Unfortunately, Hess discovered something many other women in her situation have: Police are rarely either willing or able to take this kind of incident seriously. Specific, credible threats of violence are illegal in many jurisdictions. But online harassment — even in this extreme form — is rarely a high priority for police departments. And many police officers lack the basic information — like "what's Twitter?" — needed to effectively investigate online harassment.

Hess cites the work of Danielle Citron, a legal scholar who has argued that the hostile reception women receive online should be viewed through the lens of the civil rights movement. In her view, online harassment discriminates against women online in much the same way sexual harassment creates a hostile environment in the workplace.

Thinking about the issue in those terms might motivate people to action, but actually extending civil rights law to cover online harassment could be a legal quagmire. The courts are likely to hold that some online harassment is constitutionally protected speech. And Congress had good reasons to exempt intermediaries such as Twitter from liability for the vile comments of their users.

A more fruitful approach would be to focus on deterring the most extreme forms of abuse, those that cross the line into outright threats. In California, for example, "immediate and specific” threats of violence are already illegal, and the threats Hess describes in her article were pretty specific. The problem is that police and prosecutors haven't made it a priority to prosecute those who make threats online. If people who wrote this kind of thing started winding up in jail, it would make the Internet a little more hospitable for our mothers, sisters and daughters.