Monday, March 8, 2010

If you become a target of online harassment, stay cool and keep a record

Online Targeting and Harassment
Aidan Maconachy

Most internet harassment goes on in chat rooms and newsgroups, also via email. Internet law has tightened up since the early free wheeling days when there were very few controls in place. For example it's become a federal crime in the US to anonymously "annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person" via internet or other telecommunication systems. So it's on the books, if people choose to go after the bullies.

Some people do. In a precedent setting case in 2006, a Florida woman, Susan Scheff, successfully sued for defamation over the internet and was awarded $11.3 million. The defendant was unhappy with the referral service offered by the plaintiff and posted complaints and insults on the internet, accusing Ms Scheff of being a"crook" and a "fraud".

Another 2006 case in the UK suggests that tolerances are rapidly changing. Internet users are becoming less willing to put up with personal attacks, and in some cases are taking it all the way to the top. In the UK case, a Tracy Williams was ordered to pay damages of 10,000 pounds plus 7,200 pounds in costs for accusing a male acquaintance, Michael Keith-Smith, of being a "sex offender" and "racist blogger". She also accused his wife of being a prostitute.

I'm not wholly enthusiastic about these cases, because a legal chill is liable to act as a powerful disincentive when it comes to simple use of language. After all, part of the power of the net is that it is a lot less regulated than many other aspects of our lives. This is why we need to police ourselves and avoiding indulging in behavior that will provide justification for those who are eager for excuses to increase regulation and control.

If you do become a target of harassment or defamation, stay cool. Don't react or get into a flame war with the people doing the harassing. Make a point though of keeping a record - emails, posted comments etc, along with dates, times and any identifying information that may come in handy at a later date.

Depending on the stealth method used, you might be able to acquire additional info about the source of the attack. Legitimate services such as "nslookup" and "tracert" enable users to track hosts, IP addresses and MAC addresses. There are also professional services you can enlist that use the information you provide to dig for additional info. Make sure they operate within the law, as some are little more than hackers-for-hire.

As in any ordinary case of harassment, it's important to build the case and gather the evidence. Don't release any of this material to the person you suspect is behind the abuse, until and if you are prepared to go the distance.

If you are concerned about your privacy and reputation, it may be advisable lower your profile. Often disengagement and non-reaction stops harassment because most cyber trolls and bullies get their jollies from the belief that they are ruining your life.

If there is no hidden history or baggage you are anxious to keep confidential i.e. criminal record, then continue to put your best foot forward. Most users savvy with the ways of the net are well aware that defamation is a weapon that can be used for any one of a number of malicious reasons. There are outspoken politicians and pundits online who attract pages of gossip and speculation on Google. Most of them remain unaffected by it and keep on trucking.

Over time, defamatory commentary loses its edge when it becomes apparent that nothing has come of it. It gets to be old news. In a way you will be stronger for it. Other net users get to know who is being harassed and look to see how the target is reacting. In the case of bloggers, it's important not to allow harassment to become an obsession, and especially not a subject for constant posts. To most readers this comes across as a bit unhinged and obsessive. Not helpful, since the average visitor has little or no interest in a blogger's personal online angst.

It really comes down to the individual in the end. If you've nothing to hide - you have nothing to fear except fear itself.

Aidan Maconachy is a freelance writer and artist based in Ontario. You can visit his blog at

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