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Online Harm

“It is a sexual violation. It’s disgusting.
The law needs to be changed, and we need to change.”
Jennifer Lawrence on her nude photos being
non-consensually disclosed online

Fairly recently, Jennifer Lawrence’s iCloud account was hacked and her private nude photos were stolen and posted online. She was mortified.

Her case is just one of many, according to Professor Danielle Citron (University of Maryland School of Law), who very recently published a book about online harassment, Hate Crimes in Cyberspace (Harvard University Press 2014).

Citron - Hate Crimes in Cyberspace

It is a compelling and provocative book. It is a bold book. And as the recent news stories indicate, it is a book that couldn’t be more timely and more needed. One might think that online harassment is rare. Who would write such mean and vile things? What kind of person would harass Zelda Williams, the daughter of Robin Williams, who was viciously attacked online immediately after her father’s death? Even Caligula would show more humanity.

The frightening fact is that these people aren’t so rare. The Internet teems with trolls and hate-mongers, who spew venomous threats, invade privacy, post nude photos, and engage in a barrage of other threatening and harmful tactics. Even more frightening: In many cases, when the mask of anonymity is ripped off, these people are not brutes living in a cave, but are professionals, colleagues, people who are polite and who bathe and who don’t walk around with clubs in their hands.

Danielle CitronDanielle’s book begins with a series of stories about vile online harassment. These stories demonstrate the profound harm such harassment can cause to victims. The book is eye-opening because of how prevalent the harassment is and how many people feel compelled to unleash their reptilian brains on the Internet.

In addition to thoroughly and powerfully documenting the problem, Danielle offers a solution, one that finds inspiration from civil rights law. One might think that prohibited discrimination like sexual harassment in the workplace is a far cry from attacking someone online or posting nude photos about someone (a practice sometimes referred to as “revenge porn” because those posting the photos are often spurned ex-lovers out for vengeance). But Danielle explains in her book how the law that significantly civilized important spheres like the workplace and schools could also help civilize the Internet.

I interviewed Danielle about her book, and her idea to turn to civil rights law for answers.

QUESTION: Tell me more about online harassment. What are some of the cases you discuss? How prevalent is such harassment?

CITRON: The nonconsensual disclosure of someone’s nude photos is just one way that harassers and stalkers target people. Sometimes, the abuse also involves threats, lies, and technological attacks.

  • Anita Sarkessian, a media critic and journalist, received frightening rape threats after announcing that she was raising money on Kickstarter to make a documentary about sexism in video games.
  • An anonymous mob tried to shut down her fundraising effort by reporting it as a fraud; her website Feminist Frequency was hit with distributed-denial-of-service attacks that knocked it offline.
  • Holly Jacobs, a PhD student, had her nude photos and contact information posted on hundreds of revenge porn and porn sites. Many of the posts falsely claimed that she was interested in anonymous sex; others said that she slept with her students.

Sadly, the phenomenon of cyber harassment is common. It’s estimated that over 850,000 individuals experience stalking via networked technologies each year.

QUESTION: In your book, you say that cyber harassment should be covered by antidiscrimination law, including laws covering bias-motivated threats and laws protecting against abuse that interferes with people’s important life opportunities due to their group membership. These laws typically apply when a protected class (gender, race, national origin, religion, etc.) is targeted. In what way are cyber attacks targeting certain classes of people?

CITRON: The majority of cyber harassment victims are female, though men are targeted as well. What is revealing is that the abuse is often sexually threatening and sexually humiliating. Victims don’t just experience threats—they face rape threats.

The defamation isn’t a run of the mill lie. It is often sexually humiliating. Victims are accused of having sexually transmitted infections. Same with the privacy invasions: victims’ nude photos are exposed for the world to see.

QUESTION: You write that the law has made a big impact on workplace sexual harassment, and you suggest that it be applied to cyberspace. What kind of impact has the law had? How would it work for online harassment?

CITRON: In the 1960s and early 1970s, we accepted sexual harassment in the workplace as a normal part of everyday life. Women were told to accept it or find work elsewhere. A common view was that it was often a woman’s fault if men propositioned her or humiliated her because of her sexuality.

The law and some high profile incidents of men abusing women at work helped change that. Inspired by the work of scholars like Catharine MacKinnon, courts began to see sexual harassment in the workplace as sex discrimination, rather than no big deal. And victims began to see it that way too, especially after Anita Hill testified about her experience working for now-Justice Clarence Thomas. Now, we don’t think it is normal to experience sexual harassment at work. It is illegal.

Law can do the same here. With law’s help, activism, and persuasion, we can change the way that we see and respond to cyber harassment. Right now, it is often dismissed as messy personal matters, a normal but regrettable feature of online life. Recognizing cyber harassment as bigoted abuse, often a hate crime, would signal its wrongfulness and the harm it does to individuals, groups, and society.

Cyber harassment deprives victims of crucial, tangible life opportunities—to work, obtain an education, and to express oneself freely—just because they belong to a protected group. What else did the cyber mob know about Sarkessian other than that she was a woman writing about sexism and video games? Civil rights law, traditional criminal law, and tort law should be brought to bear against it.

QUESTION: Is there anything employers should be doing to address the problem on their own?

CITRON: A key thing that employers should keep in mind is that they should not discount prospective employees based on troubling material appearing in online searches of their names. Employers can’t help but be influenced by nude photos posted by harassers and the defamatory lies spread about victims. They should remind themselves that victims have done nothing wrong—their perpetrators have.

QUESTION: A common concern with regulation of online harassment is that it threatens free speech. What is your response to this argument?

CITRON: Regulating cyber harassment also would not trample on the core values underlying why we protect free expression in the first place. Cyber harassment does little to enhance cultural and political discourse and does much to destroy it. Rape threats, lies, and nude photos posted without consent tell us nothing about cultural or political ideas. Instead, they destroy victims’ ability to engage as citizens. It’s true that the regulation of cyber harassment would chill the expression of the harassers because they are using words and images to terrorize, intimidate, and silence victims. But defenders of the First Amendment should be less troubled about limiting the expressive autonomy of those who use their voices to extinguish others’ speech.

The First Amendment does not work as an absolute. The First Amendment allows certain categories of speech to be regulated because they cause serious harms and make only the slightest contribution to public debate. Sexual harassment law and other civil rights laws have long been held by courts not to violate the right to free speech. We have a very wide latitude to speak freely in this country, but that right is not absolute, and it is not a license to use words as weapons to harm people, to silence them, to invade their privacy, to unjustifiably destroy their reputation, to thwart their opportunities and jeopardize their livelihoods.

Danielle Citron’s book is Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, published by Harvard University Press.

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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy training, data security awareness training, HIPAA training, and many other forms of training on privacy and security topics.  This post was originally posted on his blog at LinkedIn, where Solove is an “LinkedIn Influencer.” His blog has more than 950,000 followers.

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