Internet harassment laws make it a criminal act to use the Internet to threaten, torment, stalk, intimidate or otherwise distress a person. Legislation and enforcement varies from one jurisdiction to another, but Internet harassment laws are put in place to protect potential victims from the trauma of cyberstalking, cyberbullying and other forms of internet harassment. In some regions, provisions have been made within broader harassment laws specifically relating to the Internet and other forms of communication.
Legal definitions of Internet harassment vary slightly from one region to another, but most jurisdictions agree on the basic principles. Internet harassment is an attempt to use email or another form of electronic communication to torment, threaten, stalk or perform some similar act that would cause distress to a reasonable person. When determining the difference between simple rudeness and criminal harassment, authorities are likely to consider issues such as the attacker’s apparent intent, the frequency of the remarks or postings, evidence of premeditation or information gathering, whether others were encouraged to participate in these acts and whether remarks or attacks were directed specifically at the victim.
For those found guilty, the penalties for violating Internet harassment laws depend on the severity of the attacks and the jurisdiction. Harassment convictions can result in fines, community service or a prison sentence. If the victim made previous attempts to make the attacker stop, or if the attacker engaged in other illegal activities such as hacking to harass the victim, sentencing is likely to be harsher.
Before 1990, there was little that could be done legally to deter harassment in any form, whether through the new internet, over the phone, or even in person. California was the first state in the United States to pass anti-stalking legislation, with other states passing similar laws in the following years. These laws, written long before the days of text messaging and social media websites, were designed primarily to prevent predatory stalking.
In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed the Communications Decency Act. This act, originally written to protect the public from harassing phone calls, was rephrased to include any telecommunications device. Although some other clauses of this act were found unconstitutional because of an infringement of free speech, the articles on Internet harassment were not challenged.
Even with the Communications Decency Act, most anti-harassment legislation is done at the state level. California was first to address cyberstalking in 1999, and many other states have passed specific Internet harassment laws. Still others have made provisions in existing anti-harassment laws to deal with Internet communications.
Other countries have passed Internet harassment laws as well. For instance, the British Parliament passed the Malicious Communications Act in 1998. International cooperation has been effective in addressing other forms of Internet-based crime, but issues surrounding jurisdiction remain problematic with the Internet, because even the way the crime is defined by various Internet harassment laws can vary greatly.