A friend recently asked me to have a look into what legal protections are available to someone who is being stalked online. Their query was complicated by the victim being in a different country than the stalker. I approached the issue by researching the relevant law in both countries, and then shifted my focus to any international law that might apply. Researching law covering the Internet is always both interesting and complicated since the relevant technology is always evolving, and the law is always necessarily a few steps behind as it tries to grapple with new ways that people come up with to abuse that technology. After a while the same themes became apparent through-out the literature, I’m going to talk about them in this post.

In the past I have written on the prevalence and personalities of Second Life stalkers, and on the relationship between law and technology. Feel free to have a hunt through the rest of my blog if you want further background on my views on such matters. This post though will primarily focus on what appear to be the current legal attitudes towards cyberstalking.

One of the biggest problems for law that should be able to cover cyberstalking, is that it’s working from the fundamentals of real life stalkers. So the focus is on people who have physical access to you and therefore pose a “real” threat – these people are of course in your own country and thereby covered by the same laws as you live under. This real world focus also means your stalker is easily identified – you know their name or the way they look. As soon as you move into the virtual world you lose two of those key elements required under stalker laws – even laws that have been modified or created to reflect the use of new technology: Those two elements being the idea that the stalker is in the same jurisdiction as you, and that they are not anonymous.

There appears to be a trend away from requiring the potential for physical harm from your cyberstalker; recognition that harassment short of fear for your safety (or your job loss in employment legislation), is an event the law should still be interested in. There are also steps you can take to help identify your stalker – through the assistance of the ISP of the offender, and the help of the organisation responsible for the service through which you are being harassed (such as Second Life).

The two main methods for getting help to stop the cyberstalker – whether in your own country or abroad – appear to be as follows:

1 Reporting them to the Police

Because the law has this nasty habit of frequently changing, and varies so much country to country, your best bet is to talk directly to your local police about the situation and ask what you can do about it. There may not be law to directly cover your situation, but you might as well find out, and at the very least they will be able to point you in the right direction for alternative options. If the police show no interest in your complaint or are excessively unhelpful, I have read some suggestions that you just go above their heads to the next policing level (whatever that may be in your specific country), and keep working your way up the policing system until you get some attention to your personal plight and the issue more generally. It will be very important that you have kept records of the stalker’s communications with you. It will also be important that you have on record that you clearly asked them to stop all future communications (only do this once though – I’ll talk about that further below).

2. Reporting them to the Service Providers

You should advise any organisation who’s service is being used to stalk you, that this is happening. Companies don’t want to be seen to allowing stalking or being party to such activities, and will generally be happy to help you out. In regards to Second Life, please use this link to view their requirements for reporting stalkers, and suggestions for dealing with them in-world. Their own suggestions mirror the self-help advice I’ll now go through.

I find it useful to separate the advice for how to cope with cyberstalking through self-help, into two categories: The before and the after.

1. The Before

There are certain steps you can take to protect yourself from attracting or assisting cyberstalkers. These include not making available personal information through any public forums or profiles, using names that don’t provide any personal information (gender neutral names are often suggested), and protecting and frequently changing passwords.

2.The After

Once you’ve got yourself a cyberstalker, it’s important that you tell them to stop communicating with you, and only tell them once. After you’ve done this, stop all future communication with them – mute them for example. Also tell your friends not to communicate with them and to mute them. Do not begin communicating with them again, no matter what they say to you and your friends – if they try to threaten you into action you have even more grounds to go to the police and get them to take legal action – keep it all on file including your own responses (which should be non-existent after you tell them to leave you alone).

Many sites I went to suggested you do everything in your power to make sure they cannot contact you, including leaving your old accounts, changing your name, your email address, etc. This will especially be the suggestion where the service is set up in such a way that the offender can simply create new accounts to stalk you from, after their old ones get shut down. You’re going to be asking yourself why you should be the one to leave your old accounts and change everything when you’ve done nothing wrong – it’s just further punishment for yourself. Whether you take those extra steps to get away from the stalker will depend on how badly the stalking is upsetting you and how persistent it is – if you’ve got to do that to make it stop, then do that you must. It’s a shame if it gets to that point of course, but considering just how bad stalking can get, you might want to cut it off by taking those steps before it gets any worse and ruins other aspects of your life.

I’ve also come across the argument line that if you do things that allow, encourage or make it easy for people to stalk you, then you lose grounds to complain about the predictable behaviour that ensues. For example, if you put up sexually suggestive pictures of you on a public site and then get a bunch of sexual advances from strangers, you should have expected that reaction and can’t legitimately complain about it. That sounds a lot like the old rape law reasoning that women sent out sexually available messages by wearing short skirts, so men couldn’t be blamed for following through on them. Obviously there’s an enormous difference between being raped because you wore a short skirt, and being stalked online because you put a picture of you in skimpy lingerie on your profile, but the idea that you bring harassment on yourself and therefore lose a remedy against it, seems a tad off, no?

The issue of cyberstalking is further complicated by issues of what is considered harassment by one party, might be fine behaviour to someone else: Many jurisdictions appear to require an objective aspect, such as whether a reasonable person would feel harassed or fearful of the behaviour. It is exceptionally easy to accuse someone of cyberstalking you too. Every area of law has problems of evidence, policy and enforcement, and cyberstalking is utterly fraught with these.

After all my research – both through opinion pieces and legal materials – I come to this overall summary: If the stalker is in your jurisdiction and you have their identity, you have a good chance that your local laws will provide you some protection. If they are cyberstalking you from another jurisdiction, you can still make inquiries of your local police but are less likely to get a remedy. You still have available to you the options outlined above of taking the matter to the service providers involved, and self-help. It appears that the lack of a consistent international approach to the issue, in what is an ever developing area of the law, will often leave the victim with a confusing and distressing situation, but I hope this post helps some of you a little.

While reading the comments on a friend’s blog post about Freebies, I came across the standard comment (and from a Second Life resident no less), which goes along the lines of “it’s all just play clothes on virtual dolls, why do you all give a crap?”. I was going to reply to it but realised what I had to say had wider application and goes to the heart of trying to understand why people bother with a virtual world at all. So it’s getting its very own blog post over here instead 🙂 .

The first thing to realise is that that style of argument can apply to every single element of Second Life, “it’s just pixel pieces, why do you care that this sim is being destroyed..” “it’s just fake water, why does a view of it matter”, “it’s just toy bodies, why do you care who they have virtual sex with”, etc. So as Second Life residents we should always be suspect of this argument from anyone else who is a resident too – surely we know better than that by now. We might find it easier to defend why we value whichever part of Second Life we take part in, but struggle to appreciate someone else’s interest in something like Second Life fashion.

It doesn’t take a lot of reflection to put together the arguments though – the way we dress our avatars expresses our own style; some people write poems, some sing songs, some do pictures, others dress up. They are just all ways to say “this is me, this is what I am, this is how I feel”. Then there’s all the arguments about the fact that people make real money from virtual clothes, and spend real money on virtual clothes, there is livelihood at stake here and that is always going to be important to the people involved in it. Throw in the points about the art-form itself of creating virtual clothes – the precision and expertise involved – and all up it’s really not that hard to understand why some people care so damn much about it.

However, you don’t have to go through those sorts of in-depth or reasoned arguments if you don’t want to – because this whole discussion just emulates the exact same arguments we throw at each other in real life about real life activities. For example, I have no idea why so many of the men I know spend money and time following and caring about sports. I’ve heard their arguments and none have convinced me I should suddenly take an interest in it myself. You can push the examples to the edge of reason as well and try to appreciate the money and time people like MTG players put into a small pieces of cardboard that the rest of us would just throw out as rubbish, or stamps, or whatever – the examples are unlimited. All that matters though is that they do value those things – whether they can make you value them too or not is going to be irrelevant to their own desire and possible obsession over them.

To the same extent it becomes pointless to constantly ridicule people about the things they value – in any world. We all take joy from different things, it’s part of the beauty of the diversity of humanity, why would anyone want to destroy that, and make us all like the same things? What an incredibly boring world that would be.

There is a line to be drawn of course: If someone is spending time or money on something to an extent that they are endangering their own or their family’s lives, then we say enough is enough. But we call that an obsession, or an addiction, and we generally understand that just about any imaginable (legal) activity becomes dangerous at those extremes. However most people don’t live at the extremes of addiction and obsession, and the chances of you being able to figure out if they do or not from some brief blog comments they make, seems very low. So even with this line of concern there is little ground to dismiss what someone else values as “stupid” or “unreasonable”.

What is considered “valuable” changes from individual to individual. And even when two individuals value something equally, the reasons for them ascribing it that value are likely to vastly differ – whether those reasons are monetary gain from on-selling the item later, emotional ties, rarity, beauty, or historical connections. Some people will mount arguments for “objective value” – but that’s usually at the fringes of philosophical debate, where we try to make the argument that everyone should value life, or happiness or other things which are rarely on the market anyway. The ways in which we achieve happiness or our versions of the good life are reflected in the rest of the items and activities we try to surround ourselves with; trying to tell someone they are “wrong” for valuing stamps or sports or pixels when in fact they help that person achieve one of these higher goals (of lets say, happiness), is to miss the point entirely.

Within certain communites we can have meaningful discussions about value. For example in the Second Life fashion community there can be meaningful discussions about the value of a well-made dress with fantastic unique textures. But if you don’t value Second Life fashion at all, trying to jump into that discussion and tell them they’re all morons for thinking it matters who designed a dress or the details of the texture, is a waste of your time and a waste of theirs; go get involved with discussions about things you do actually care about, instead of focusing so much effort on bringing down what makes other people happy.

There are a lot of thoughts I’m trying to get out here, that require more space than a single post rightly allows. But the point is an important one: Why we value Second Life at all – why we value what we do there, why one person values clothes and the other values snail races – is as much a discussion as to why one person values collectible playing cards and another spends their time drooling over Ferraris. Just accept that what makes you happy might not make your neighbour happy, but that as long as you’re not addicted or obsessed to the point of destroying lives, just live and let live. You’re not going to convince me to stop valuing everything Joss Whedon creates, and I’m not going to convince you that following sport is pointless (even though it is :p ).

“Getting the story out first” often means what you’re getting is improperly researched half-truths. Take the swine-flu for example: Every day the news stories I watched and read would contradict their own announcements the day before, the media built up its own hype until it got to the point that the only real news left was the fact that the media had over-hyped it all. Like no one saw that coming. In a culture where everyone seems to have a blog, “getting the news first” has become a near impossible goal for any internet outfit. And, dare I say, a less admired one: I’d rather hear the story an hour or so later than everyone else if it goes towards making sure that what I read is accurate (and well-written would be nice too!).

It seems to me that the long-term successful online blogs and publications are going to be the ones which have integrity and researchers – ones which employ people to do more than “type fast”. As Twitter and Plurk grow in popularity (though from what I’ve read recently the retainment rate is hardly stellar), news has become anyone’s game. People seem to spend more time reporting life than living it lately, so it’s not a pleasant trend to watch, and not one I’m keen on joining in: Blogging is as far as I go on the “wow I just blew my nose” minute by minute reporting of existence.

It all reminds me of this extract from an item I referenced a while back, called Why Facebook is Just Plain Wrong: “Devaluing friendship aside, Facebook also encourages an unhealthy culture of voyeurism and laziness. Sitting in a restaurant recently I overheard a table of Gen Y’s talking about what a great night they were having. Several chirped up to say “we should like totally Facebook this!”. Thankfully sanity prevailed as one sensible soul said “how about we experience it for real?”.”

Social critique aside, it is happening, and is effecting people who report news for a living. I can hear you complaining that surely it’s not effecting the professional news outfits, I must be extrapolating too much from comparing the quality and depth of research of your everyday blogger to professional news outfits… Hmm, how about you go read this first. It’s about how one guy used Wikipedia to fool some major news agencies, and he didn’t have to try particularly hard either. My husband has been telling his students off for using Wikipedia to do their university research for a good few years now, I’ve told him to use that story as a warning about the importance of proper sourcing. Maybe the journalists need to go back to journalism school for a refresher course too.

So this is where we end up: Magazines and newspapers have been struggling to compete with a world of news-now online media. But they shouldn’t be trying to; they should be finding their own niche in reporting with fully researched facts, with integrity, and with talented writers. In a way that sets them apart from us everyday bloggers. Similarly though, online news outfits who do it for a living are going to have to think beyond the “we got there first” mentality. Sure you need to be speedy with your news, but if it takes a little longer to get it out because you had to talk directly to the effected parties first hand, or had to confirm your sources, and (gasp) check your spelling, then isn’t it worth the delay? It’s also very important to know whether what you’re saying is fact, or opinion. Because claiming opinion to be fact not only makes you look unreliable, it also exposes you to defamation suits. And those aren’t fun, for anyone involved.

Like I said in a previous post, in a world where it is becoming easier to contact famous people who do famous stuff – especially in our own field of Second Life where we’re all just an IM or notecard away – there are fewer reasons for bad reporting, and resorting to the “he-said, she-said” that still seems so popular. If people won’t look into matters themselves though, or at least be willing to admit that they haven’t done their research, it leaves it up to us the readers to point out that we expect more. At the very least, it is up to us not to perpetuate the short-comings of others by piling on our own opinions of things that never actually happened (or happened in such a different way than reported, that it as good as never happened). There will always be a market for that tabloid style of reporting, but it’s not one I’m interested in. And I only hope those who insist on following it, know what they’re encouraging and how foolish and nasty it will make them look when they treat what those outfits say as if it was truth.

Life’s too short to read crap.

Hopefully, incidents like the Wikipedia one I linked to above, will sink into public knowledge. And we all get a little wiser for it.

It is exceptionally easy to destroy things, it is a lot harder to create. One of the things that used to annoy me about the post-modernist movement I had to study as part of my Arts degree, was how so very ready it was to destroy other theories, and yet provide nothing in its place – like knocking down a building and then standing back proudly looking at the rubble.

When you really got down to it though they’d usually knocked down a fake version they had erected in its place – with weaker foundations. There are lots of fancy terms you can use to explain the fake building – for example it may have been an ad hominem argument (attacking the person instead of the argument), or a straw-man (setting up a weaker version of a stronger theory then attacking the weaker one and claiming you’ve destroyed the stronger one). The problem is the person still standing there shouting to anyone who will listen “look what I destroyed, look how very great I am that I have taken down this strong monument!”

And that is the point – they do not have the ability or talent or desire to create something themselves, or at the very least to create something in place of the rubble they think they’ve now put in the place of the building.

There is value in attacking a weak or bad argument – definitely, don’t get me wrong. There is surely a place for strong clear reasoning that reveals flaws in an argument – it helps strengthen the building instead with its corrections, or it shows how we might proceed to find the right answers. If someone has attempted a proper argument and you can show them where their reasoning has fallen foul – and you know they are adult enough to listen, learn and respond – then you’re both doing well out of it: They have shown you how to strengthen or clarify your argument and you have shown them where they have gone wrong. But again – the strong and worthy attacks are the ones which inevitably seem to show a way forward – a way to progress to an improvement and truth. Which reinforces what I’m trying to say here: If you must destroy, make some effort to in turn create or shine some light on the better way forward. Which brings us to griefers and trolls.

Griefers and blog trolls exist to destroy or ruin other people’s creations. When you’re trying to build something in a sandpit and someone cages you – sending you flying, unable to progress with your project, or when you’ve written a well-thought out post and the best someone offers up to counter it is “you’re a bitch”, we need to understand what they are actually achieving.

I’ve heard the arguments pro the trolls which go along the lines of “freedom of speech” and “hearing all sides of an argument” and “non-censorship”. But giving them space to purely destroy – without coherent argument or any suggestions for improvement – only destroys the spirit of the writer. It detracts their attention from dealing with meaningful discussion and creating new interesting (improved) posts. There is no value in loud screams of “you’re a self-centred moronic cow!”, and even less value in replying to them. In the meantime allowing such comments through lowers the tone of the blog and encourages the troll due to the attention it gets them. I’ve struggled with deciding whether to let troll comments through or not, which is part of the motivation behind this post, but for the reasons I’ve given so far it’s less of a struggle for me now – after some reflection I better understand why it does not make you a better person or writer to allow those comments through.

Griefers are cut from the same cloth: You will hear arguments about how very clever griefers are – see how they created this physics-defying trap! See how they totally ruined your avatar that you spent months perfecting! See how they created a fish to follow you round the sim so you can’t take any pictures with yourself in it! Wow! Such brilliance and talent and such a load of bullshit. All they have created is to ruin others’ ability to create, or to ruin what others have already created. Like the trolls and the typical post-modernists, all they’ve done is knocked down something and provided nothing better or interesting or enlightening in its place. They make you spend your own creative time un-doing their destruction – making you report them or attack them, and either way feeding them the attention they so clearly crave.

How many hours, days, months of your life would you have back if not for having to un-do or address these sorts of people – people who seem to purely do what they do to (1) get attention and (2) destroy what others have created? Too many. So do yourself (and everyone else) a favour and don’t let the troll comments through, and don’t reply in person to the griefers, save your time and energy for creation, not destruction.

I have had Second Life friends who frequently suffer anxiety attacks – I can think of four people off the top of my head but there may be more. I always encouraged them to be open about the way they were feeling so I could reassure and comfort them. I did this primarily out of friendship, but I also did it because I understood what they were going through: I’ve suffered anxiety attacks during my life that would incapacitate me with bodily fear, shaking, my heart racing, and often without anything at all to have brought it on (well, nothing I was aware of anyway). The worst of these attacks occurred when I was on antidepressants about a decade ago – they put me on the wrong medication and it almost killed me.

The problem with virtual worlds is that they lend themselves to paranoia. Usually we use facial expressions, body language, eye contact etc, to figure out what people think of us and what’s going on around us. Without any of this in Second Life we look for other cues – eg long silences, unexplained disappearances. The number of times I’ve had perfectly calm rational people ask me if I had a problem with them just because I took a few minutes to reply to an IM or because I TPed away when they arrived somewhere, is more than I can count, but somedays would happen many times over from different people, reading unintended messages into my behaviour because they lacked other cues I’d normally provide in the real world – like a smile or eye contact to quickly let them know that we were all good.

As humans we naturally look for patterns in the behaviours of those around us – especially in the people we think we know well. We establish expectations and when behaviours and words from others start varying from those expectations we want to know why, and when it happens with a lot of people all at once we get rather paranoid. This looking for patterns and trying to understand them is a survival instinct and perfectly rational – we need to identify and respond to threats before they become something too big (or too “real”) for us to deal with.

When you try to verbalise what’s bothering you though you will more often than not get the response of “oh you’re just being paranoid”. Well, yeah. But that response doesn’t help, what is required is proper and meaningful reassurance or a possible explanation for the behaviours that are causing the concern. When people aren’t open about the reasons behind their actions, your mind will try to create an explanation in its place. And being only human we will often think the worst because we need to be prepared to deal with threats – both emotional and physical – as they arise. As you try to sort out in your head why things are changing around you, you start to doubt yourself, you start to wonder if you’re seeing patterns where there are none, you start to wonder if you’re going “mad”. And while those around you brush off your concerns as “paranoia” or refuse to communicate at all, the paranoia and anxiety feeds into itself and becomes a monster in its own right.

So do me a favour, next time someone says or does something that you think reveals they’re just being paranoid, sit them down and ask them what made them get the impression that someone or something was out to get them. And if there really is something that grounds the paranoia, help them cope with the situation and the threat. And if there isn’t, then reassure them, give them a big huggle and tell them you’re there if they need to talk. Sometimes paranoia is rational, sometimes it is a mental illness, but always it is something that you should care enough about to help your friends through it.

A recent heart-breaking post about suicide, written by Prad over at Metaversally Speaking, lead to numerous comments of the predictable type: One grouping was “Prad you’re so kind and brave” (which he is), and the other line of comments was “suicidal people are evil ass-hats”. What I want to talk about is the dangerous idiocy of claiming expertise in the “type of people” who commit suicide. (I’ve discussed suicide at length before in a previous post here, so I will not repeat what I said there, go have a look though if you want my back-ground broader view on the issue of suicide and Second Life.)

We seem to know that we cannot put forward our understanding of serious physical ailments, as if they were medical truths, without proper training and research. And we understand that doing so would be stupid and dangerous. For example, if you tell me you have bowel cancer I would not assume your genetic or behavioural history that lead to it, even if I knew other people who had suffered and survived or died of it. I would not tell you what you must and must not do, and what it says about you as a person that you have the condition (any more than we can assume that every lung cancer victim was a smoker – a common error). Rather I would show my sympathy for your situation and try to support you, and rest on the expertise of your specialist with their recent and highly researched knowledge, to get you through. (If I did express any opinion on what they should or shouldn’t do I would be exceptionally careful to make it clear it was only my personal view and wouldn’t want to be responsible for them acting on my advice if it contradicted their assigned expert.)

And yet when we hear someone is suicidal – which is an extremely life-threatening mental condition – people are so very ready to put on their expert’s hat: “Oh you’re just attention seeking”, “oh, you’re genetically mentally ill”, “oh, you’re clearly a egomaniac”. What makes people think they are experts on this condition? Just because they’ve felt suicidal before? The reasons you were suicidal will very likely be different than this other person, plus you didn’t end up killing yourself did you so how much can you really claim to understand them? Maybe if you attempted and failed the suicide it might be a tad more believable that you truly understand. I’d also suggest that if you’re saying someone else is evil because they considered or achieved suicide, that you might be projecting yourself a bit there – maybe what you need is to think more about what you’re really admitting to.

The other thing that tends to make people think they’re such experts on suicide is that they know people who have succeeded in committing it. I know people who have died of all sorts of physical conditions, does that make me an expert in their deaths? Of course not. And the mind is an incredibly complicated thing – a bodily organ that is formed and effected as well by our daily experiences. What in god’s name would make you an expert in all suicides just because you knew one or two people who committed the act? Did you do a chemical break-down of their brains before and after the fact? Did you counsel them for years before the act was achieved – with a background of years of professional study in higher learning institutions, that qualify you to comment enmass about the cause of all suicides..? I doubt it.

The fact is the human mind is exceptionally complex in so many ways, and its chemical make-up can differ vastly from person to person. Just because you have a brain doesn’t make you an expert on the ones that kill themselves. In the same way that just because you have a body doesn’t make you an expert on the ones that die.

The extra danger of course with claiming such expertise about suicidal people is that your opinions of them can directly effect whether they follow through on the act or not, so you better be careful aye? And no it’s not so simple as saying “I told them I’d think they were selfish ass-hats if they killed themselves so now they won’t do it!” Cause guess what, if they really were selfish ass-hats that opinion of yours wouldn’t matter would it? You also can’t claim that telling them to stop using suicide to seek attention will make them stop it, cause guess what, if you’re right they still desperately want and need that attention and you choosing to ignore their cry for help will only make it worse.

I have seen suicidal people stop in their plans because someone simply hugged them. Or because someone told them they cared whether they lived or died. Or because someone gave them the right pills to fix their serotonin levels. How helpful have these other people been at stopping suicides, by putting them down both before and after the fact? You might be saying things to make yourself feel better or trying to make the people left behind feel a bit less upset, but wouldn’t it be better to have shown the understanding in the first place in the hope it could have stopped the act happening at all? Knowing you did all you could – like Prad did? Wouldn’t that make you a better person. Even if you didn’t succeed, and even though you know the failure isn’t your fault, at least you know you were there and you did what you could, when they felt that no-one else cared or could help.

It’s so easy to dismiss suicidal people cause they’re not around to defend themselves anymore are they. It’s so easy to label them to make yourself seem superior just for having not killed yourself. Next time someone asks you your opinion about why suicidal people kill themselves, just stop and admit first that it depends on the life experiences, on the brain chemistry and on so many other factors you don’t know enough about, before you label them all as stupid, evil or insane. Because frankly, labelling them that way makes you look stupid, evil, and – if you really think it will stop suicides – possibly insane too.

Do you feel the compulsive need to write down everything you think – to Twitter or Plurk or blog every damn thought and action? I know a fair few people who seem to think they’ll stop existing if they don’t. Maybe the fact that this is my third blog post today is telling me something 😀 (but I think Twitter and Plurk are ridiculous so I’m not too far gone). If you do have that urge, perhaps you have hypergraphia. Or perhaps you just need more hobbies 🙂

Want to know just how bad it can get? Ever heard of Robert Shields who “left behind a diary of 37.5 million words chronicling every 5 minutes of his life from 1972 until a stroke disabled him in 1997″? You can read more about this extraordinary case here.

Just makes you think what more we could be doing and living, if we weren’t all so damn busy trying to write it down, huh.