Will This Congresswoman’s Campaign Against Online Harassment Make The Internet A Safe Place For Women

congresswoman-Katherine-Clark

If you’ve been paying attention to news over the past couple of years, you will no doubt have heard of gamergate and the phenomenon of online harassment toward women. Gamergate was a vicious movement which attached female gamers, game developers and women who spoke out about the sexualization and objectification of women in video games. It was more than just a few nasty tweets, it was an entire movement of people, mostly male, hacking into some of the aforementioned women’s computers, exposing their private details publicly and threatening them in some pretty extreme manners.

Death threats, rape threats and acts of violence became a daily reality for women like game developer Brianna Wu and speaker and content creator Anita Sarkeesian who hosts a Youtube series about the disparity of female game characters compared to men. Anita essentially became the unofficial “face” of the gamergate movement.

If you aren’t too familiar with how intense and disgusting the gamergate threats are, just tweet anything negative about the movement using the hashtag #gamergate and see what type of responses you get. Now multiply that by 1000 and add in more graphic violent threats and that’s what women like Brianna and Anita were forced to deal with to the extent that they had to call law enforcement to protect them.

Just to give you an idea, Anita was asked to give a speech at a university in Utah, and when one of her haters found out she would be speaking at their college, he threatened to enact one of the biggest mass shootings the US has ever seen, Utah State University was forced to cancel her speech because the state cannot prevent people from carrying firearms due to the open carry laws in place. Yep, this ain’t just a bunch of whiny boys on the internet angry that girls now make up roughly half of the gaming community worldwide and are muscling in on their territory. This is serious criminal activity being threatened and law enforcement worldwide needs to step up to the plate.

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You’d think calling the FBI would put a lid on this type of cyber crime, but unfortunately online harassment is still a very new phenomenon in the grand scheme of crimes against a person so the inability to prosecute and take proper measures to protect victims is widespread amongst law enforcement in the United States.

But now there is one member of US Congress who is hoping to force change in the government in order to help victims of online harassment get the justice they deserve.

Democrat Katherine Clark, representative from Massachusetts is campaigning for the Department of Justice to basically get off their asses and investigate these crimes with the resources and attention they deserve.

In March she started making noises about this important issue and by the end of May she announced on her website that she had finally received backing from the House for her quest.

“Too many women have had their lives upended by the severe threats and harassment they have received online, and they often feel they have nowhere to turn for help. These threats cause fear for personal safety, create a chilling effect on free speech, and have a negative economic impact for women conducting business online. That is why we’re asking the Department of Justice to enforce laws that are already on the books, and make these cases a priority,” she wrote.

Although laws against violent online threats and harassment already exist, she said it is the lack of enforcement that is the weak link in prosecuting these crimes.

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“Of the estimated 2.5 million cases of cyber-stalking that occurred in the U.S. between 2010 and 2013, federal prosecutors pursued only 10 cases. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, 73% of adult internet users have witnessed online harassment, and 25% have seen someone threatened with physical violence. Another study by the University of Maryland reports that women receive sexually explicit or threatening messages 27 times more often than men.” her press release stated.

A memo to the DOJ from the House appropriations committee reads:

The Committee is aware of concerns regarding increased instances of severe harassment, stalking, and threats transmitted in interstate commerce in violation of Federal law. These targeted attacks against Internet users, particularly women, have resulted in the release of personal information, forced individuals to flee their homes, has had a chilling effect on free expression, and are limiting access to economic opportunity. The Committee strongly urges the Department to intensify its efforts to combat this destructive abuse and expects to see increased investigations and prosecutions of these crimes.

Having the backing of the House is a big deal and the first in a series of steps that will hopefully change the culture of the way women are disproportionately affected online by simply raising their voices and sharing opinions.

In an interview with Techcrunch Katherine talks about meeting with the FBI and talking about the threats reported by Brianna Wu.

“We were frustrated by the response we received. We clearly got the message that online threats against women are not a priority. And that is why we’ve put together a letter to the Appropriations Committee asking the Department of Justice to intensify their investigations and prosecutions. We are not asking the federal government to police the Internet, but simply to enforce the laws that are already on the books,” she said.

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She also revealed that it was a matter of resources and therefore priority for the FBI which is why they have failed to act in relation to the huge number of cases reported.

“The response is so disproportionate to the problem. And the threat not only to a woman’s personal safety, but we’re also seeing woman making real economic decisions based on harassment they’re facing online that are detrimental to them and to their family,” she said.

“When we see that women are feeling like they need to leave their own homes in order to ensure personal safety, that they are losing wages, canceling public appearances because of specific threats, this is more than just safety; this is an economic issue for many women. We’re seeing a real chilling effect on woman’s ability to speak out, especially if they are asserting a feminist opinion,” she added.

Katherine also revealed to Techcrunch that as expected, they have been getting some very polarizing reactions online since leaning on the DOJ and FBI. She has personally received negative tweets and harassment on twitter, but privately women have been emailing her thanking her for being willing to stand up for all those who do not have the power to raise their voice publicly.

“It is when we start to speak out as a collective voice that we’re going to change the culture around this and this should not be an acceptable form of harassment and threatening behavior. And it’s only when we band together and raise the profile of this issue that we’re going to change that,” she said.

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Online harassment is still a relatively new type of crime but it has also been increasing rapidly over the past few years that it is high time the government, law enforcement and organizations work together to stop this epidemic from continuing with the intensity and freedom it has been afforded for way too long.

Just to give you an idea of how possible this type of legislative progression is, take a look at the new Revenge Porn laws which are being introduced across the nation. So far 13 states have passed laws that prosecute revenge porn crimes since 2013, a handful have introduced them into the legislature, but there are still many which have no laws defining revenge porn and allowing victims the justice they deserve.

California state attorney Kamala Harris, who is running for Congress, just sentenced a man to 18 years in prison for running a revenge porn site, posting over 10,000 images and demanding up to $350 an image if the victim wanted to have the image taken down. Her victory is a clear message to all perpetrators – don’t even think about doing this.

“The word “revenge” suggests that there is a legitimate reason to lash out and that’s not present in these cases. And the term “porn” suggests the victim intended [the images] would be distributed publicly—that’s just inaccurate. Those terms also invite judgment and questions about the morals or the appropriateness of the behaviors of these women when, in fact, they’re victims. I prefer the term cyber exploitation because that’s really what’s happening here,” she said in an interview with Marie Claire magazine.

Kamala-Harrris

“I wanted to make a very strong statement to victims as well as perpetrators that this behavior will not be tolerated. This case removes any ambiguity about what’s against the law. It also makes clear that a computer can be as lethal as a weapon. Anyone sitting at home with the anonymity of a laptop should be very clear that that will not immunize them from arrest, prosecution, and prison,” she continued.

Online harassment against ANYONE is disgusting, cowardly and cannot be ignored any longer or brushed aside. We cannot raise the next generation of young men and women growing up in a world where every second or third headline is a story about a person committing suicide because they were bullied and harassed online. To have a cultural movement such as gamergate is a gross failure of society toward half of the human race.

Thank you Katherine Clark for standing up and taking the lead on this issue, putting the fire under the asses of law enforcement.

To get a glimpse into just how awful and psychologically damaging online harassment can be, take a look at ‘Last Week Tonight’ host John Oliver’s in depth look at how this disproportionately affects women:


 

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