Hate Crimes in Cyberspace

Posted on by Ben Rothke

It’s said that criminal lawyers see bad people at their best, and divorce lawyers see good people at their worst. At times, the Internet seems to bring out the bad in all types of people.


In Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, a fascinating book just out, author Danielle Keats Citron details many incidents where unsuspecting and ordinary people suddenly found themselves under direct attack in the form of hateful emails, threats, prank calls, online bullying and more.

The irony is that in the cases she details, the victims were not the dregs of society or criminals, rather tech bloggers, law students and the like.

Citron notes a few times that in the early days of sexual harassment in the workplace, the common wisdom was that the victim was told that they should simply deal with it and go on with their lives. The current environment doesn’t blame the victim and every firm now has policies and programs to deal with workplace sexual harassment.

She writes that to a large part, law enforcement and the media has taken the approach that today’s victims of internet trolls should use the sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me approach. But that gives little solace to victims of internet trolls who are living their lives in fear due to the many threats against them; from malicious impersonation, proxy stalking, rape and death threats and more.

The book deals with the question of if there is something about the Internet that fuels destructive cyber mobs and individual harassers. She asks if the Internet brings out the worst in us, and why.

She writes that women are more often the victims of cyber harassment then men.  This week, Xeni Jardin wrote in Yet another female game dev targeted with credible threats after speaking out on sexism, Brianna Wu, developer of sci-fi action puzzler Revolution 60, had to leave their home due to a credible threat on Twitter.

An account spammed Wu with violent threats and made it clear that it was doing so because of her outspoken support of women in tech and gaming. The last tweet publicly published Wu’s home address. In response to that, she called the police, who came to her home.

On the other side, British woman who was a troll and lead a vicious campaign of online abuse against the parents of missing girl Madeleine McCann committed suicide last week, when her identity was uncovered by the news media.

To a large part, the anonymity of the net, the ability to cloak behind a sort of shield of invisibility, reduces peoples reason, and brings out their animalistic emotions. It is the anonymity that frees people to defy social norms, in addition to their physical separation, which exacerbates the tendency to act on destructive impulses.

Citron acknowledges that anonymity’s substantial costs must be understood in lights of its great benefits. The challenge is dealing with both.

The book details where law enforcement has told victim to simply disconnect from the Internet. But in 2014, that could mean loss of professional opportunities, self-expression and the like.

The first part of the book paints the bleak picture of how pervasive cyber harassment is. In the second part, Citron comes up with ideas in which the law can be used to both prevent and punish online harassment.

The author is an attorney and knows quite well that any attempt to quash trolling or hateful speech will run head first into the First Amendment. In fact, the defense of nearly every troll, racist, hatemonger and the like has been to justify their attacks in the name of free speech.

In chapter 6, Citron creates a framework in which laws can be created and updated to deal with the threat of Internet harassers. She is savvy enough to know a legal reform agenda won’t make the problem go away, as anonymizing technologies far outpace any law, and often defeats any regulation in its midst.

In chapter 8, she shows how her cyber civil rights legal agenda can survive First Amendment challenges. She notes that civil rights and sexual harassment laws didn’t destroy expression in the workplace, and that a legal agenda against cyber harassment and cyber stalking can balance civil rights and civil liberties for the good of each.

The only flaw in this book is its title. If these were really hates crimes, they would be offenses that were easily punishable. It’s Citron goal that those who stalk, abuse, upload revenge porn and the like, will one day find their actions criminal, and not simply protected speech.

Citron’s framework, or any other, even if it were to survive the endless legal challenges, is still years, if not a decade away from becoming law.  Until then, the free-for-all of the Internet, along with its many trolls will be business as usual.  The downside is that there is little defense Internet users have to protect themselves.  As even if they don’t take compromising pictures of themselves, there are still plenty of malevolent trolls around to make their lives miserable.

Hate Crimes in Cyberspace is a compelling and important read. It’s also equally disheartening to read myriad stories of people whose actions are sometimes criminal, and often vicious and animalistic. 

ISBN: 978-0674368293

Ben Rothke

Senior Information Security Manager, Tapad

security awareness

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