Responding to Cyberharassment
[Note this article was written before Lori Drew was found guilty and the judge overturned the conviction.]
Federal authorities prosecuted a Missouri woman for allegedly cyberharassing 13-yr old Megan Meier who then committed suicide in 2006. Lori Drew, 49, of O’Fallon, Mo., was arraigned in Los Angeles in June 2008 for allegedly impersonating a teenage boy to contact Megan. Drew allegedly wanted to find out what the girl was saying about her daughter online to others. As this case highlights, cyberspace is blurring the traditional jurisdictional boundaries for school administrators and police in enforcing student safety.
School administrators and police authorities are in a key position to help students and parents take cyber stalking seriously so they can cope with Internet safety challenges that traditional law enforcement methods can’t address. “The lack of awareness about cyber law is the bigger problem, not the lack of law,” said Parry Aftab of WiredSafety. In fact, “there was a law already in place at the time Megan Meier was being harassed online that could have put that mother in jail for two years,” Aftab said, referring to the Lori Drew prosecution in California.
Federal cyber stalking law is designed to prosecute people for using electronic means to repeatedly harass or threaten someone online, said Aftab, who is also an attorney who specializes in Internet law. “It’s right on point.”
Missouri law enforcement officials didn’t bring charges, but the case is now being prosecuted in California by federal officials. According to the California federal grand jury indictment, Drew violated policies that prohibit setting up a phony account on MySpace, which is based in Beverly Hills, Calif., and whose server is in Los Angeles. MySpace is cooperating with U.S. Attorney Thomas P.O. O’Brien, who filed the suit. Officials at MySpace said in a written statement, “MySpace does not tolerate cyberbullying and is cooperating fully with the U.S. attorney in this matter.”
Drew is charged with one count of conspiracy and three counts of accessing protected computers without authorization and via interstate commerce, to retrieve information used to inflict emotional distress. Each count carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. The indictment says after the Meier’s suicide, Drew deleted the fictitious account information to obstruct detection. Drew has disputed the charges.
The indictment claims that Drew pretended to be a 16-year-old boy named Josh who sent sexually charged and increasingly nasty messages to the girl via the MySpace account. That exchange ended with a message that suggested “the world would be a better place” without Meier. Believing she’d been rejected by Josh and subjected to hours of non-stop harassment and hateful attacks, Meier committed suicide.
The case underscores the way in which cyber stalkers can hide their identities when contacting students. Further, off-campus “virtual” harassment can cross over into physical assaults, Aftab said. Online harassment has led to campus fights, students dropping out of school, and in some cases, stabbings, murder and suicide.
The Justice Department says cyber stalking presents unique challenges for school officials, law enforcement and victims because:
- When targets can’t identify anonymous stalkers, police may be hesitant to respond.
- Authorities may minimize reports, assuming online partners will never meet.
- Cyber stalkers can sometimes learn a target’s true identity, location and routines while the target can’t pinpoint them.
- Cyber stalkers can use cyberspace to publicly compound a target’s distress.
Aftab and the Justice Department recommend advising a target of cyber stalking to take the following steps:
- Tell the person not to make contact again.
- Save all communications for evidence. Do not alter them in any way. Keep electronic copies, not just print-outs.
- Save any information that suggests a violent threat and contact law enforcement.
- If the harassment continues, contact the harasser’s Internet service provider. The ISP is provided with instant messages. Most ISPs prohibit using their service for abusive purposes. An ISP can often intervene by directly contacting the stalker or closing his account.
- Keep a record of your contacts with ISP officials or law enforcement officials.
- When contacting police, provide specific details such as any tangible evidence you’ve collected. In cases of a serious threat, police can refer the matter to state or federal authorities for investigation. The stalker may be prosecuted in court.
- If the target is afraid to act, find help through other resources, such as WiredSafety.
Visit www.WiredSafety.org to learn more about dealing with cyber stalking. A cyberstalking self-help tutorial at www.wiredsafety.org/cyberstalking_harassment/stalking_self_help/index.html and more information about cyberbullying at their StopCyberbullying.org site.