The Internet has created a culture where anybody – anybody – can go from obscurity to fame overnight. This notoriety doesn’t require consent. Often it’s uncontrollable, ruinous and impossible to stop.
Take Pizzagate. What began as a fake news story about a child sex ring at Comet Ping Pong ended with an armed man firing an assault rifle inside the pizza parlor. Even before the attack, lives had been turned upside down. For weeks, the restaurant had been receiving harassing phone calls and emails. It had been slandered online. Law enforcement said there was nothing that could be done.
That’s where I come in. My law firm represents victims of online harassment and sexual assault. We stand for the belief – and witness it anew multiple times a day – that everybody is a moment away from having their life destroyed by a jealous ex, an enemy or even a demented stranger. All the angry person must do is post a picture or rumor. The Internet’s relentlessly archiving memory and creeping search engine algorithms provide eternal life in cyberspace to the most humiliating information, true or not.
Here’s a fact pattern we see frequently: A client’s nude pictures, originally shared in a trusting relationship, get posted by her jilted ex to a website dedicated to hosting “revenge porn.” Thousands of men frequent these sites each day. They email our clients. Soon he or she is assaulted by hundreds of unwanted, threatening emails, texts and social-media requests from strangers who blindly accept that she is the “diseased whore” her ex describes her as. These strangers compete with one another in the site’s comment threads to unearth as much personal information about her as possible – her social-media accounts, phone numbers of her parent’s employers, email accounts of her underage sisters. They use that information to stalk and harass. With a click of a button, the angry ex has presented the victim on a platter for the Internet to devour. This is harassment by proxy; revenge has never been more efficient.
Just because you’ve never taken naked pictures or don’t have enemies doesn’t mean you’re safe. We have clients whose bikinis are photoshopped off and posted onto revenge porn sites, who are filmed getting dressed or engaging in a sexual act without their knowledge, whose faces are masterfully superimposed onto a porn star’s bodies, whose rape videos have gone viral. Other clients are advertised as prostitutes for sex on websites such as Craigslist and Backpage. In one case, more than 40 strangers showed up at our client’s home and workplace to intimidate her.
We’ve had cases where the offender is somebody with whom our client went on one online date. In one case, she was somebody with whom our client, a male, decided not to go on a date with after determining she seemed too emotionally unstable. Thereafter, his name and social media profile picture wound up on an online STD registry. In all cases, the mob is at the ready to ignore the truth and scare the bejesus out of the target.
Victims often seek assistance from law enforcement, but return from precincts demoralized. Their plight is often not understood by the individuals taking their report, who have a limited grasp of social media. (That was the case for journalist Amanda Hess, who in 2014 was asked “what is Twitter?” by the police officers taking her report of death-threat tweets.)
The law must keep up with these kinds of crimes. While 34 states have revenge porn laws, they don’t cover the resulting online harassment from mob viewers. Harassment laws typically require direct contact with the victim and a course of conduct. So if the original offender simply uploads content onto a site and sits back while the mob attacks, neither of those requirements are met. Similarly, a thousand people may each anonymously send the victim one terrorizing communication – again, not a course of conduct by any single person. Plus, law enforcers are highly unmotivated to open a case in which the cyber forensics may eventually show that the offender lives in a country on the other side of the equator – or at least is logging in through an IP address suggesting that. Law enforcement officers shy away from investigating tech cases, especially when they are lowly misdemeanors with an anonymous offender, let alone a thousand anonymous offenders.
There is good news: A combination of legislation, technology, law and advocacy can improve online life. We need laws that acknowledge harassment by proxy and that attribute actions of the incited mob to the original upstream offender. Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.) is in the vanguard, introducing legislation stopping some of the most formidable online acts. One bill criminalizes the malicious publication of private information, another prevents blackmailed demands for sexual acts, and a third punishes people who falsely report emergencies causing SWAT teams to be dispatched.
Other important proposed legislation penned by Clark is focused on the infrastructure of law enforcement – one requiring the Justice Department to publish statistics related to cybercrimes and funding, another providing funding to hire and train law enforcement officers to investigate cybercrimes and to procure advanced computer forensic tools. Meanwhile, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) introduced the Intimate Privacy Protect Act this year, to criminalize non-consensual pornography, with co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle.
Although it’s a no-brainer that tech companies must stop the abuses on their platforms, angel investors and venture capitalists must refuse to fund new companies that don’t build community safety standards into their earliest designs. We must also support the efforts of the grass-roots change-makers such as the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative and Without My Consent.
Never before has there been such a license for maliciousness. Tweets from our highest elected official have led to online harassment. To prevent a trickle-down effect of cruelty, we must take action. Nobody is trying to sanitize the Internet into a place exclusively for compliments and happy unicorns birthing sparkly glitter hearts. But if we do nothing, the Internet’s ruling class will be comprised of those with the most demented psyches and not enough to do.