The simple fact of life in 2017 is that the internet — and technologies fueled by it — are inextricably interwoven with our daily lives. It has given us the ability to live, work, learn, and socialize in innovative ways, with the capacity to connect with people in all corners of the world quite literally at our fingertips. We now live in a world where relationships can be formed and fostered without ever meeting face-to-face or even being on the same continent.
Unfortunately, with those transformations to business and social life has been an emergence of people who see the internet as a tool to harass and oppress others, and to do so at arms’ length, even anonymously. It empowers and emboldens even those who would resist the urge to harass someone in a face-to-face or public encounter; and enables them to create power over another person with the threat of access to their entire community. Young women and girls are the most vulnerable and most often targeted for these acts.
Take the problem of sextortion: coercing someone to engage in sexual conduct or provide sexually explicit imagery. It is committed by exerting power and control. An old concept that has now become an epidemic thanks to the ease with which the internet allows perpetrators to create and exert power and control over victims across the globe from the comfort of their living rooms. Some offenders have amassed hundreds of victims in multiple countries before being identified. Victims suffer deep and long-lasting trauma. Some have even taken their lives. And in too many instances current laws either do not address, or address insufficiently, the harm these perpetrators have caused.
The problem with seeking accountability for online harassment lies in laws that do not reflect the technology-driven society we live in today. Existing laws throughout the country — at the time they were conceived — viewed 2017 as the era of “The Jetsons” and simply could not accurately anticipate the world we live in now. Law enforcement and prosecutors throughout the country have tried to hold online harassers accountable by shoehorning these new offenses into laws that reflect neither the extent of the actions taken nor the harms caused. Many victims are simply left with no redress at all. This breeds inconsistency in our criminal justice response — a serious problem we should all be concerned about. A few individual states have taken action to modernize their laws; for example, Utah and Arkansas each passed sexual extortion amendments to their criminal laws in 2017.
In late June, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) introduced the "Online Safety Modernization Act”, with bipartisan support of co-sponsors Reps. Susan BrooksSusan Wiant BrooksThe tale of the last bipartisan unicorns Bold leadership is necessary to curb violence against youth Here are the three GOP lawmakers who voted for the Equality Act MORE (R-Ind.) and Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), which aims to curb the forms of online harassment which have become colloquially known as “sextortion,” “swatting,” and “doxxing.” It updates federal criminal statutes to clearly and unambiguously prohibit these forms of online harassment and provides civil remedies for victims of these offenses. Critically necessary, it provides for collecting data on the prevalence of these forms of harassment, dedicated federal law enforcement officers to investigate and prosecute these offenses, and $24 million for training law enforcement.
This law does exactly what the name promises — it modernizes our laws to reflect the reality of society in 2017. It brings federal law up to speed with the manner in which we all communicate every day — the internet-enabled devices in our pockets, in our bags, and on our desks. And it equips law enforcement to understand the pervasive nature of these offenses and respond in an informed manner.
This epidemic harassment requires a swift and firm response. It is wholly inappropriate to expect those who are vulnerable to online harassment to just not use the internet, email, or social media. That is to tell victims that in order to protect themselves they must extricate themselves from society. It is victim-blaming. To fail to address these pervasive forms of harassment in a meaningful way would be the equivalent of telling women simply not to work if they don’t want to be sexually harassed in the workplace, rather than reforming our laws to define and combat sexual harassment. The Internet Safety Modernization Act of 2017 presents a clear, informed response to this issue.
Jennifer Becker is senior staff attorney at Legal Momentum, the women’s legal defense and education fund. Prior to joining Legal Momentum, Becker was a sex crimes and child abuse prosecutor in the Bronx, New York, and was the Title IX Coordinator for the New York City public school system.