Online Harassment

The proliferation of digital communication technologies and social media platforms has led to a rise in online harassment, posing significant challenges for individuals, businesses, and policymakers. To combat this pervasive issue, governments at the state, federal, and international levels have enacted rules and regulations to address online harassment and protecting victims' rights.

Online harassment may include the following:

  • Sending harassing emails
  • Posting derogatory comments
  • Uploading unauthorized pictures or videos
  • Disseminating false or private information online
  • Encouraging users to "rate" or "tag" humiliating photos
  • Impersonating another user in a chat room
  • Spreading rumors through social networking sites
  • Publishing defamatory or libelous statements online
  • Creating false web pages or profiles to defame someone
  • Electronic infliction of willful, negligent, or repeated harm
State Laws

Many states have enacted laws specifically targeting online harassment and cyberbullying. These laws typically define various forms of online harassment, such as cyberstalking, cyberbullying, and electronic harassment, and impose penalties for offenders. State laws may include provisions for restraining orders, criminal penalties, and civil remedies for victims of online harassment. Additionally, some states have implemented education and prevention programs to raise awareness about the consequences of online harassment and promote digital citizenship among youth.

In California, online harassment, also known as "cyberharassment," is addressed through various laws that prohibit threatening, intimidating, or harassing behavior conducted via electronic communication. While there isn't a specific law titled "online internet harassment," several existing statutes can be applied to combat such behavior. California laws related to online internet harassment include:

  1. Penal Code Section 653.2: This law prohibits knowingly and maliciously sending electronic communication with the intent to harass another person. Electronic communication includes emails, text messages, social media posts, and other forms of digital communication. Harassment under this statute includes threats of harm or violence, obscene language, or repeated unwanted contact intended to annoy or harass.
  2. Penal Code Section 646.9: While not specific to online harassment, this law prohibits stalking behavior, which can include online stalking or cyberstalking. Stalking is defined as willfully and maliciously harassing or following another person and making a credible threat with the intent to place that person in reasonable fear for their safety or the safety of their immediate family.
  3. Penal Code Section 422: This law prohibits making criminal threats to harm or kill another person. A criminal threat can be communicated through any means, including electronic communication such as emails, text messages, or social media posts. To be considered a criminal threat, the communication must be specific and credible, causing the recipient to fear for their safety.
  4. Penal Code Section 653m: While originally intended for telephone communications, this statute has been expanded to include electronic communications. It prohibits making annoying or harassing phone calls or electronic communications, including sending repeated messages with the intent to harass or annoy.
  5. Civil Code Section 1708.7: This law specifically addresses cyberbullying of minors and allows parents or guardians to seek a restraining order against individuals who engage in cyberbullying behavior directed at their minor children. Cyberbullying includes electronic communication with the intent to harm, intimidate, or harass a minor.
  6. Civil Code Section 1708.8: This law addresses the unauthorized distribution of sexually explicit images or videos online, also known as "revenge porn" or "cyber exploitation." It allows victims to seek civil damages and injunctive relief against individuals who distribute their intimate images without consent.

These laws are aimed at protecting individuals from online harassment and ensuring that perpetrators are held accountable for their actions. Victims of online harassment in California can seek legal remedies, including restraining orders, civil damages, and criminal prosecution, depending on the nature and severity of the harassment. It's important for individuals to be aware of their rights and legal options when faced with online harassment in California.

Federal Laws

At the federal level, several laws address online harassment and cyberbullying, albeit indirectly. For example, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) prohibits unauthorized access to computer systems and data, including activities such as hacking and cyberstalking. Additionally, the Interstate Stalking Punishment and Prevention Act makes it a federal crime to engage in interstate stalking, which may include online harassment conducted across state lines. While federal laws provide some level of protection against online harassment, there is ongoing debate about the need for comprehensive federal legislation specifically targeting this issue.

At the federal level, several laws address online harassment and cyberbullying, although there is no single comprehensive statute specifically targeting this issue. Instead, federal laws related to online harassment are often applied in conjunction with other statutes addressing harassment, threats, stalking, and related offenses. Here are some key federal laws relevant to online harassment:

  1. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA): Enacted in 1986, the CFAA prohibits unauthorized access to computer systems and data. While primarily aimed at combating hacking and cybercrime, the CFAA has been applied to cases involving online harassment, particularly in instances where perpetrators gain unauthorized access to individuals' accounts or engage in cyberstalking.
  2. Interstate Stalking Punishment and Prevention Act: This federal law, enacted as part of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 2006, makes it a federal crime to engage in interstate stalking. While not specific to online harassment, the statute may apply to cases involving cyberstalking conducted across state lines.
  3. Communications Decency Act (CDA): Section 230 of the CDA provides immunity to online platforms and service providers from liability for content posted by users. While Section 230 shields platforms from liability for most user-generated content, it does not protect against liability for certain criminal offenses, including federal crimes such as harassment, threats, or stalking.
  4. Federal Stalking Statute (18 U.S.C. § 2261A): This statute prohibits interstate stalking, including through electronic means such as emails, text messages, social media, or other forms of electronic communication. It imposes penalties for individuals who engage in stalking behavior that crosses state lines or affects interstate commerce.
  5. Federal Threat Statute (18 U.S.C. § 875): This statute prohibits transmitting threats of violence or injury across state lines or using interstate commerce to convey threats. It applies to threats made via electronic communication, including emails, social media posts, and other online platforms.
  6. Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act: Enacted in 2009, this law expands federal hate crime protections to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. While not specific to online harassment, it may apply to cases involving bias-motivated harassment or threats conducted online.
International Laws

Online harassment is a global phenomenon that transcends national borders, necessitating international cooperation and collaboration to address effectively. Several international agreements and initiatives aim to combat online harassment and promote digital safety and security. For example, the Council of Europe's Convention on Cybercrime, also known as the Budapest Convention, addresses various forms of cybercrime, including cyberstalking and online harassment. Additionally, organizations such as the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have adopted resolutions and guidelines aimed at combating online harassment and protecting human rights in the digital age.

Regulatory Challenges and Emerging Trends

Despite efforts to address online harassment through legislation and regulation, challenges remain in effectively combating this complex and evolving problem. Regulatory challenges include issues such as jurisdictional conflicts, enforcement mechanisms, and the balance between free speech and protection of victims' rights. Additionally, emerging trends such as anonymity, encryption, and the proliferation of social media platforms present new challenges for policymakers and law enforcement agencies in combating online harassment.

Online harassment poses significant challenges for individuals, businesses, and society as a whole, requiring a multi-faceted approach involving legislation, regulation, education, and technology. By understanding the legal landscape surrounding online harassment at the state, federal, and international levels, policymakers, law enforcement agencies, and civil society organizations can work together to develop effective strategies for preventing and addressing online harassment, protecting victims' rights, and promoting a safe and inclusive digital environment for all.