At any moment, someone somewhere is being harassed online. And no, I’m not talking about just uncivil or rude speech. I’m talking about something much more serious, whereby people’s safety may be put at risk by those who decide to solicit attacks on others or who take some perceived dispute offline to try to interfere with the individual’s studies, work, or life. There is a nasty and dark side to the Internet that we really haven’t dealt with effectively.
One of the problems in trying to address behavior that crosses the free speech line into harassment or cyberstalking is that characterizing or defining something as online harassment doesn’t explain it. And without an explanation as to the why of the behavior, we may find ourselves with a one-size-fits-all sledgehammer approach that is, to put it simply, ineffective. While education may help prevent or reduce some problems, it likely won’t help at all in some cases, such as where the cyberstalker is mentally ill. Simplistic approaches such as requiring people use their real names online will only deter a subset of problematic behavior while stripping people of the right to try to protect themselves online by using a pseudonym. Nor will a real-names policy prevent those who are so out of control that they are unlikely to be deterred even by restraining orders.
So what do we do when one-size-fits all consequences are unlikely to be effective in reducing or preventing problems?
Safe Shepherd (safeshepherd.com) is getting involved in the problem. A firm that started by trying to help people remove their personal information from the Internet got so many contacts and inquiries from victims that they started looking at what might be done legislatively to help. They’ve created a web page on their site to promote two kinds of laws:
Two laws can stop stalkers from finding their victims personal information on the Internet. The first creates confidential addresses for victims. The second law makes it illegal for data-brokers to publish the personal information of stalking victims who have confidential addresses.
Read more about these laws on their site. I was surprised to read that 32 states already have address confidentiality programs. Stopping or limiting the data brokers is also an appealing idea, although I expect Congress would face a lot of push-back unless the privacy community really gets its act together to promote this.
Another relatively new organization, Without My Consent (WithoutMyConsent.org) is also trying to strengthen online privacy and provides information and resources to those who are being harassed. They will be holding a panel and fund-raiser event on July 18th in San Francisco, so if you’re in the area, do check them out. And if you’re not in the area, consider making a donation to support their work.