What each of these cases underscores is that the speed of technology is outstripping our laws and our schools’ abilities to protect our citizens. And if we don’t adapt our laws and recognize the threat within our schools, then our most vulnerable – those who are targets of hate groups or draw the attention of bullies in schools – will find themselves further isolated.
It used to be just artists who felt the pinch of digital theft. The wonderful thing about the Internet is it enables all of us to explore and capitalize on our creative side as well as share our life’s experiences. But in a world of new rules, too often the most innocent or naïve are now the easiest to exploit and brutalize. It’s true for people who post pictures online only to be surprised when those same pictures appear on dating websites or advertisements without their knowledge or permission. Or of people who put their designs on Etsy, a popular site to sell handmade jewelry and vintage crafts, only to see them stolen by overseas operators.
But in those cases, the harm is commercial. In the case of Brian and Tom, their likenesses were stolen in a malicious attempt to depict their union as abhorrent. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which filed the suit on behalf of the couple, has labeled Public Advocate a hate group for sending out fundraising letters asking readers to “imagine a world where the police allow homosexual adults to rape young boys in the streets” and comparing gay marriage to bestiality.
A hate crime is defined as “a crime that is motivated by hate, prejudice, or intolerance of somebody's religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.” Did the theft of their likeness amount to a type of a hate crime? Current laws generally limit hate crimes to harassment, terroristic threats, assault and crimes against property like vandalism, criminal trespass, criminal mischief and arson. But hate-crime laws don’t reflect the harm that can be done by hate groups in the digital age.
It’s trickier when the perpetrators are high school students. Yet the results ofcyber bullying can be devastating. A Florida teen’s suicide after becoming the target of cyber bullies is just the latest reminder. All schools have developed programs designed to combat cyber bullying, but “slut-shaming” has added a new wrinkle that schools must recognized and address.
The theft of digital images, videos and texts are just that, theft. Take the case of Angie Varona, who was forced to switch schools at 14 when her Photobucket account was hacked and provocative (non-nude) photos of her were distributed across the web on porn sites and pedophile chatrooms.
But what happens when the digital theft is done to mock or shame a teen in school?  In an era where many teens have no issue downloading an illegal movie or song, the idea of stealing a classmate’s digital works seems like fair game.
Schools need to establish and enforce a policy that strongly condemns digital theft of a classmate when the purpose is to bully or humiliate. We have to reinforce in our schools respect for the private lives and property of others is an important tenet of life. And that the principle that “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” applies to the digital world as well.
Violating a person’s privacy and exposing intimate secrets in these ways is an act of hate. Our world is changing every day. Our laws and our schools need to adapt to those changes. Let’s ensure that common decency is not a casualty of the digital age.
Galvin is executive director of the Digital Citizens Alliance, a coalition focused on making the Internet a safer place for everyone.