A private attorney, a federal prosecutor, and a legal scholar tackled the challenges of combatting invasive online crimes such as sextortion, doxxing, and cyberstalking during a South by Southwest panel titled “When the Internet Turns Violent and Abusive.”
Mona Sedky, a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Computer Crime & Intellectual Property Section, explained that online harassment goes much further than name-calling. She tracks and prosecutes criminals who hack into computers looking for photos or compromising information that they can use to threaten, extort, and otherwise terrorize victims, who are often women. The hackers use that information to coerce other images and even pornography from their victims.
Victims Rights Attorney Carrie Goldberg said clients at her New York-based law firm report extremely invasive attacks that cross every facet of a victim’s life. For example, a harasser in possession of a compromising photo of a victim may repeatedly post it online; email it to the victim’s parents, friends, pastor, school, or employer; and even impersonate the victim posting personal information on rape fantasy websites asking men to appear at the victim’s home to carry out the rape.
Being a victim of this type of abuse changes how everyone around the victim sees him or her and not a single aspect of the victim’s life goes untouched, Goldberg said. These victims often “erase themselves,” she said. They disappear from social media, distance themselves from friends, sometimes drop out of school, and even stop going to family functions.
Mary Anne Franks, professor of law at the University of Miami School of Law, said attempts to stop abusive online speech quickly run into First Amendment concerns, but she notes the inability to stop online harassment actually chills the speech of women and minority groups, who are almost exclusively the victims of this type of harassment. If people can’t be safe from extreme and invasive harassment while using social media, they can’t speak, Franks said.
Goldberg expressed frustration that lawyers so far have been unable to hold big tech companies liable for their inability or unwillingness to halt abuse on their platforms. Goldberg said the companies hide behind overly broad court interpretations of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.
Goldberg relayed a story about a client who complained 50 times to a tech company that runs a dating application about harassment from one of its users. He complained 10 times to local police and even got an order of protection against the individual. The tech company responded by saying they did not have the technology to stop someone from using their platform, Goldberg said, adding, “Then they have a dangerous product.”
“No other industry gets a pass like this,” she added.