While cyber stalking and harassment are relatively new, real-world stalking has received a growing amount of attention in the past few years. The primary reason for this is that stalking has often been a prelude to violent acts, including sexual assault and homicide. Most states have long since passed a variety of anti-stalking laws; this movement has recently been expanded into cyberspace. This, of course, leads to the question, what exactly is cyber stalking or harassment?
Cyberstalking or harassment is using the Internet to harass or threaten another person. Or, as the U.S. Department of Justice puts it:
“Although there is no universally accepted definition of cyber stalking, the term is used in this report to refer to the use of the Internet, e-mail, or other electronic communications devices to stalk another person. Stalking generally involves harassing or threatening behavior that an individual engages in repeatedly, such as following a person, appearing at a person’s home or place of business, making harassing phone calls, leaving written messages or objects, or vandalizing a person’s property. Most stalking laws require that the perpetrator make a credible threat of violence against the victim; others include threats against the victim’s immediate family; and still others require only that the alleged stalker’s course of conduct constitute an implied threat. While some conduct involving annoying or menacing behavior might fall short of illegal stalking, such behavior may be a prelude to stalking and violence and should be treated seriously.”
That means if a person utilizes the Internet to harass, threaten, or intimidate another person, then the perpetrator is guilty of cyber stalking. One obvious example of cyber stalking is the sending of threatening e-mail messages. But even the definitions of harass, threaten, or intimidate are somewhat vague. Obviously, if a person sends an e-mail to another person threatening to kill that person and provides photos of the recipient to demonstrate that the sender is familiar with the target’s appearance and address, that would clearly be cyber stalking. But what about a situation in which a person is upset with a product and e-mails a harshly worded message to an executive at the product’s manufacturer? If the e-mail has a vague threat, such as “You will get what you deserve,” is that cyber stalking? This is not an easy question to answer, and no single answer applies to all jurisdictions and all situations. What constitutes threatening, harassing, or intimidating can vary a great deal from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. But a general guideline is that that if the e-mail’s (or instant message’s, newsgroup posting’s, etc.) content would be considered threatening in normal speech, then it will probably be considered a threat if sent electronically.
The other element of a threat is viability is the threat credible? On the Internet, people are frequently more vocal and often more hostile than they are in other venues. That means a law-enforcement officer will have to, to some extent, differentiate between someone simply spouting off or venting versus someone making a real, serious threat. So the question becomes, how do you determine whether to take a threat seriously?