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.
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.