WASHINGTON, D.C.—On Tuesday, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) introduced bipartisan legislation in the House to address extreme online threats that often target women, girls, LGBTQ people, and people of color.
The bill, H.R.3067, would establish clear federal statutes and increase existing penalties for several dangerous, and increasingly common, online threats, according to a copy of the bill posted by Clark’s office.
In “sextortion,” an anonymous user extorts money or sex by threatening to publish explicit images of their victim. A similar practice, “revenge porn” involves publishing explicit images of a victim online to exact revenge.
“Doxxing” is when someone publishes a victim’s address or other personal information so others can threaten or harass them. In “swatting,” someone uses a doxxed address to call in a false emergency, like an active shooting, at the victim’s home to provoke a heavily armed police response.
The proposed legislation would also give federal, state, and local law enforcement more resources to investigate online crimes that target individuals, and it would force the FBI and the Department of Justice to publish statistics on how often these crimes occur each year.
“[T]his legislation is not about criminalizing core speech or political dialogue that we may not like, but there is a line to be drawn to protect people’s safety,” Clark told ThinkProgress in an interview at her Capitol Hill office. “And that line does come when we are talking about extortion, threats of murder, threats of rape. And this [bill] will really help give some tools to victims who don’t have any other places to turn.”
The problem of online harassment came to public attention in 2014, when a campaign of online threats called Gamergate targeted women who criticized sexism in the video game industry. In October of that year, Boston-based video game developer Brianna Wu and her family had to temporarily flee their home after receiving specific online threats.
Clark’s office reached out to help when it heard the news, and online harassment has been one of the congresswoman’s signature issues since. The current legislation brings together several bills Clark introduced in previous sessions.
Poor tracking—and even worse transparency
It’s difficult to measure the extent of the problem, but there are some hard numbers. A 2014 survey by the Pew Forum found that some 18 percent of internet users have experienced “severe” harassment like physical threats, sustained harassment, stalking, and sexual harassment. A study of sextortion by the Brookings Institution, based on media reports and and court dockets, found 80 cases involving at least 3,000 victims.
The Department of Justice hasn’t released data on how often it prosecutes those crimes, despite repeated requests from Clark’s office since October 2014 and an ongoing public records request by ThinkProgress. However, University of Maryland law professor Danielle Citron has estimated that DOJ prosecuted just 10 cyberstalking cases from 2009 to 2012.
Clark’s legislation would require the FBI to collect data on cybercrimes against individuals and mandate an annual report from the Department of Justice.
With the WannaCry ransomeware attacks in Europe and Russian election hacking here at home, Clark acknowledges that it’s been difficult to draw attention to online crimes that affect individuals. That’s reflected in her past bills, which have had trouble moving out of committee.
With bipartisan support and an endorsement from Facebook, however, Clark is optimistic about the new legislation. Reps. Susan Brooks (R-IN) and Patrick Meehan (R-PA) have signed on as co-sponsors. It’s also drawn support from the FBI Agents Association, the National District Attorneys Association, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, among other groups.
“The fact of the matter is, the laws governing sextortion, doxxing, and swatting were written when computers didn’t fit in our pockets, phones were plugged into walls, and texting required a stamp,” Brooks said in a statement. “In order to punish and prosecute these predators to the fullest extent of the law, we must bring our laws into the age of smartphones and SnapChat.”
Clark herself was swatted last year after introducing a bill to make the practice a federal crime, with heavily armed police blocking off her street and rushing to her house one Sunday evening as she and her husband sat down to watch TV, their two teenage sons already in bed.
Now, she hopes this new legislation can move forward on an agenda that will focus more of the federal government’s resources on crimes like swatting and sextortion.
“Like so much other crime that is primarily directed at women, it has a very corrosive effect on our economy, on people’s feelings of safety,” she told ThinkProgress. “And I’m very committed that we keep the internet open to all voices.”