When Professor Danielle Citron began to write about cyber stalking 10 years ago, its victims were advised to toughen up and stay offline.
Things are different today, Citron told faculty, students, and advocates attending the 12th annual Jeanne Clery Lecture March 31 at Barnard College and Columbia University. “Our social attitudes, the law, and the practices of online platforms such as Facebook, Google and Bing have evolved, for the good of free expression.”
|Professor Danielle Citron (left) with Constance Clery at the annual Jeanne Clery Lecture Series.|
Progress has come as the problem has grown. More than 850,000 people a year are now victims of cyber stalking, according to Citron, Maryland Carey Law’s Morton & Sophia Macht Professor of Law. The majority are women, but men are victims too and the abuse is usually the same--threats of rape and sexual violence posted online, often with nude photos and false accusations that the victims have AIDS or herpes.
The online abuse of a single victim can appear on as many as 300 sites, Citron says. As a result, victims may lose their jobs and have trouble getting new ones. They may have to change their names or residence. Most suffer from extreme anxiety, constant fear and withdraw completely from online platforms.
The law is finally starting to respond, says Citron, whose book, Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, was one of the first to alert the legal community to the problem of cyber stalking and possible solutions. She notes, for example, that victims have always had the right to sue abusers in civil court for defamation, public disclosure of private fact or intentional infliction of emotional distress, but most cannot afford the legal costs of a suit. Now, however, law firm K & L Gates, has developed the Cyber Civil Rights Legal Project to provide pro bono counsel for victims of nonconsensual pornography.
During the last decade, the federal government and about half of the states enacted well-designed criminal laws against cyber stalking, harassment and threat, although they are often unenforced for lack of trained personnel or technology.
In just the last two years, however, 32 states and the District of Columbia have criminalized nonconsensual pornography, according to Citron. US Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California has introduced legislation to make revenge porn a federal crime and Citron is working with US Senator Elizabeth Warren’s office to amend the Code of Military Justice to criminalize cyber stalking and nonconsensual pornography.
Meanwhile law enforcement officials are starting to receive much-needed training. For example, Citron worked for two years with then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris (now a US Senator) to develop an online hub of resources for police officers to educate them about cyber harassment—a model that US Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts wants to adapt for federal officials.
All this work has resulted in more investigations and prosecutions, increased pressure on the operators of revenge porn; greater engagement by advocacy organizations, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation; and new policies banning revenge porn and other cyber harassment from online platforms, Citron notes.
She believes that the new laws, regulations and business policies square with First Amendment and free speech values. “Certain categories of speech can be regulated because they contribute so little cultural and political conversations and inflict great harm,” Citron asserts. “Cyber stalking isn’t annoying speech: it is a perfect storm of threats, defamation, impersonation and nude photos…It is costly to public discourse…(and) drives victims offline.”
The annual Jeanne Clery Lecture Series was created by Mrs. Constance Clery, a Barnard alumna, to honor the memory of her daughter, Jeanne, who was raped and murdered in her college dorm room in 1987. Clery and her late husband Howard were critical to the enactment in 1990 of the Clery Act, a federal consumer protection law that provides transparency around campus crime policy and statistics. They also created the Clery Center for Security on Campus which provides training and education to professionals and endowed the Jeanne Clery Internship Fund for Barnard students volunteering at the Sexual Violence Response & Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Center.