Sexism in cyberspace

The threats made against women under the guise of the online campaign known as Gamergate are terrifying. Targeted women have had their personal information publicly disclosed - including their home addresses - and they have been threatened with murder, rape, and all manner of violence. They have even been promised “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if they participate in professional events.

While Gamergate has garnered headlines, the truth is that every day is a dangerous day for women online. Journalists, academics, and other professionals who dare to express an opinion – especially a feminist one –are routinely attacked. Young women are deciding not to pursue jobs in technology to avoid the crosshairs of men who don’t think they belong. Women who are being asked to run for public office are choosing to stay on the sidelines once they see the online abuse suffered by their peers. Others are being driven offline, sacrificing their freedom of expression for safety and self-preservation.

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For the millions of women and girls who use the internet every day to navigate their jobs and personal lives, online abuse is not only emotionally devastating, but it also curtails their professional choices and their full participation in the economy. In an era when 80 percent of companies conduct internet searches on job candidates, and many positions require a high Klout score or thousands of Twitter followers, women simply cannot afford to not be online.

Moreover, online threats cost real money through missed wages, legal fees, and private protection services. In fact, the average cost for an instance of cyber-stalking is $1,200, and women disproportionately bear this cost.

Women experience sexually explicit or threatening messages 27 times more than men, and for women of color and LGBT women, the rate is even higher. Considering the real world implications and the lengths to which women must go to protect themselves, we have to demand more from those charged with enforcing our laws.

Lawmakers in Washington have already taken steps to address this, yet implementation is profoundly lagging. In 2006, Congress recognized the real-life dangers of online harassment and amended the Violence Against Women Act to make online threats of death or serious injury illegal. Yet, even though it is a federal crime, federal prosecutors pursued only 10 of the estimated 2.5 million cases of cyber-stalking between 2010 and 2013.

Of course, money and personnel are always needed to investigate crimes, but the truth is, online threats and harassment of women are just not a law enforcement priority.

After speaking with the FBI, other law enforcement agencies, and women who have experienced these threats firsthand, it's clear that nothing is going to change until we stop thinking about these crimes as harmless hoaxes and recognize the chilling effect these crimes have on women and the economy.

But this is not just about law enforcement’s response to cyber abuse. Some social media companies have taken concrete steps to improve their response to abusive behavior, but others haven’t done as well.

Just last week, someone threatened to bomb an industry conference if Brianna Wu, a game developer, who has courageously stood up to online death threats, participated. This threat was reported, but unbelievably it did not violate the site’s terms of service.

Many sites require that each threat must be individually reported and the time and effort it takes to report each one when you are receiving hundreds or thousands of them is emotionally taxing, time consuming, and expensive.

Who could blame women for deciding it’s not worth the effort?

Because we do not take online threats and harassment seriously, women are denied their right to freely express themselves and to live without fear. Due to our inaction, thousands of women have simply opted out.

The women who are being attacked for nothing more than making a video game, expressing a feminist point of view, or simply reporting the news deserve better.

That’s why I have asked my colleagues in Congress to join me in calling on the Department of Justice to intensify their efforts to investigate and prosecute the federal laws that criminalize the worst of this behavior. The federal government is not responsible for policing the Internet, but it is responsible for protecting the women who are being threatened with rape and murder in violation of existing federal law. Our effort has already received the backing of anti-violence and justice organizations representing more than 12 million women.

We must not allow the Internet to be closed to female voices, and intensifying the enforcement of existing law is a critical first step to ensure the Internet is open to everyone.

Clark has represented Massachusetts’ 5th Congressional District since 2013. She sits on the Education and the Workforce and the Science, Space and Technology committees.