Published On: Sun, Jun 7th, 2015

Online abuse is a real problem. This congresswoman wants the FBI to treat it like one.

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Dealing with online harassment can be a tangled, thorny issue. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Dealing with online harassment can be a tangled, thorny issue. (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

There are a lot of problems with the way we deal with the thorny issue of online harassment. As a recent Supreme Court ruling on harassment shows, the country’s best legal minds are still grappling with how to deal with threats made on the Web. Few deny that online abuse occurs; when it comes to addressing it, however, there seem to be a lot of roadblocks in the way.

One, says Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) is that law enforcement officials just don’t seem to take digital threats that seriously, prompting her to craft a bill that would dedicate more resources to the issue. Clark says she was inspired after reaching out to the FBI on behalf of a constituent — Brianna Wu, a video game developer who left her home after facing violent online threats last year — and was disheartened by the response.

“Frankly, it was very disappointing; these cases were not a priority,” she said. Clark, a former prosecutor, said that the attitude toward online harassment reminded her very much of 1990s-era attitudes toward domestic violence. Victims, often women, were often told that changing their own behavior was the best way to deal with the problem. As she spoke to more victims online harassment, she found that they were being advised to stay off the Internet, to leave their homes and to wait until the problems blew over — though, in some cases, the harassment went on for years.

The fact that the threats are online compounds the problem, Clark said. “It seems to be an extension of an attitude and a culture that says what we are seeing that says that if the problem’s on the Internet, it’s just not a real crime,” she said. As she spoke to more victims of online harassment, Clark found that even well-meaning officials often aren’t prepared to deal with these crimes; some lacked even a basic understanding of the Web. One law enforcement official asked Clark what Twitter was.

Clark’s bill would work to solve both the resource and education problems she saw as impediments to dealing with these problems, by giving the FBI ten new agents devoted solely to fighting cybercrime, specifically online harassment. This would include violent, specific threats of crimes such as rape, murder, dismemberment as well as releasing information  about people’s homes, family members, or indications that online stalkers are monitoring a person’s movements.

On the House floor Wednesday, Clark gave an impassioned speech about her bill and the stories she’s heard from victims:

The perception that online threats should not be taken seriously is troubling, Clark said, especially given that online harassment can be even more intense that offline threats, as some abusers send hundreds or even thousands of messages per day.

“While these threats may occur on the Internet, their impacts are far from virtual,” Clark told The Post. “They affect the bottom line for victims, who pay a real cost not just emotionally but also financially —  in fees to attorneys and private investigators, or to services to scrub personally identifying information from the Web. I don’t think that women, who are the primary targets of this kind of abuse, should have to do this alone.”

Providing dedicated resources  to the issue, Clark says, may also help more women and other victims come forward to share their stories about online abuse.

Clark said that she also wants to work with social networking companies such as Twitter, Facebook and others to find ways for them to play a role in preventing and dealing with online harassment. Clark has met with some of those companies, she said, and will continue to do so. “They have a critical role in helping with this situation,” she said, “There is a lot that can be done in the requirements of how we report abuse online and what some of those policies are.”

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