This week, Kathy Sierra published a long, raw and incisive blog post marking the ten years since receiving her first online threat.
If you’ve been following the sordid story of escalating misogynist harassment on the Internet, you know that Sierra was one of the first high-profile women to have her life turned upside down by a sadistic cyber mob. In her case, the mob was enraged less by anything she actually said than by her audacity at daring to build a public profile for herself. She initially came under attack for her popular tech blog, Creating Passionate Users, which had made her a sought-after speaker. The person who first threatened her “wasn’t outraged about my work,” she writes. “His rage was because, in his mind, my work didn’t deserve attention. Spoiler alert: ‘deserve’ and ‘attention’ are at the heart.”
The abuse really picked up a few years later, and got worse when she had the temerity to speak out about it. Sierra writes:
In 2007, I was the target of a several-week long escalating harassment campaign that culminated in my being doxxed (a word I didn’t even know then) with a long, detailed, explicit document, posted pretty much everyone on the internet (including multiple times to my own wikipedia entry). It was a sort of open letter with a sordid (but mostly fictional) account that included my past, my career, my family, and wrapped up with my (unfortunately NOT fictional) social security number, former home address and, worst of all—a call to action for people to send things to me. They did. I never returned to my blog, I cut out almost all speaking engagements, and rarely appeared anywhere in the tech world online or real world. Basically, that was it for me.
Looking back a decade later, Sierra sees that initial threat as the proverbial canary in the coal mine, “the first hint that if I kept on this path, it would not end well.” In a larger sense, the whole campaign against Sierra was an early warning for all women online. These days, every week seems to bring new stories of women tormented on the Internet—and, on occasion, driven from their homes and jobs—by rape and death threats, the posting of personal information including nude photos and social security numbers, malicious impersonation, obscene photoshopped images of their children and defamation campaigns. “If, as the communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously said, television brought the brutality of war into people’s living rooms, the Internet today is bringing violence against women out of it,” write Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly in a new Atlantic story, “The Unsafety Net: How Social Media Turned Against Women.”
Given the real-world consequences of vicious online attacks on women, it’s time to take the scholar Danielle Keats Citron’s ideas about cyber civil rights seriously. “Our civil rights tradition protects individuals’ right to pursue life’s crucial endeavors free from unjust discrimination,” she writes in her new book, Hate Crimes In Cyberspace. “At its core is safeguarding individuals’ ability to make a living, to obtain an education, to engage in civic activities and to express themselves free from discrimination. Cyber harassment deprives victims of these essential activities. The law should ensure the equal opportunity to engage in life’s important pursuits.”
As I wrote recently, laws meant to address the abuse of women online can, at times, run afoul of the First Amendment, as in some state-level revenge porn laws. But there’s no constitutional right to post someone’s Social Security number, bombard their families and friends with naked pictures, libel them or threaten them with murder. The problem is that our laws and policies have lagged behind technology, allowing forms of abuse to proliferate online that we would never tolerate in the real world.
To be sure, police and prosecutors regularly fail to enforce existing laws when it comes to online abuse, either because they don’t take the abuse seriously or because they lack the technological skills to find the perpetrators. But while better training and more resources are certainly necessary, Citron argues persuasively that the law itself needs to evolve as well.
Sierra’s story serves as a case study in Citron’s book. At one point, Sierra turned to Colorado police for help, but while they were responsive, they were limited in what they could do. As Citron explains, the state had a cyberstalking law, but it applied only to direct communication between a perpetrator and victim. It did not cover, for example, the photoshopped images of Sierra being strangled that proliferated on group blogs. “Prosecutors could not have considered the posts of the doctored photos, defamatory lies, and social security number,” writes Citron. The federal interstate stalking statute might have applied as well, but only if it could be shown that the same person or people were responsible for multiple threats and posts. If, instead, responsibility was diffused among a mob, with each member making only small contributions, the law offers no recourse.
Citron’s book has a number of specific proposals for amending the law to address those lacunae that allow the online persecution of women—as well as of racial and gender minorities—to flourish. Each of them are, on their own, debatable. What’s increasingly clear, though, is that something needs to be done to better align our laws on stalking, harassment and defamation with the technology that’s being used to terrorize and silence women, as well as other targeted groups.
Not long ago, writes Citron, women’s tales of sexual harassment in the workplace were trivialized much like complaints about online harassment today. Women were essentially told they had to develop thicker skins. “A state unemployment board, for instance, ruled that a woman lacked good cause for quitting her job after her boss demanded that she sleep with him and told male clients that she would have sex for the right price,” Citron writes. “According to the referee assigned to her case, ‘Today’s modern world requires that females in business and industry have a little tougher attitude towards life in general.’” Women who speak out about online harassment hear much the same thing.
Eventually, thanks to years of organizing by feminist activists, there was a broad societal shift, and today it’s widely understood that sexual harassment doesn’t just make women uncomfortable—it undermines their ability to make a living and exist as equals in the world. The same is true of what’s happening to women online. It’s not about hurt feelings. It’s about lives being destroyed in ways that simply turning off the computer can’t fix.