- Should I consider federal or state laws?
While there are federal laws that protect you from online harassment, your local police may be more familiar, and actions may be easier to take, with local laws. In order for a federal law to be broken, there has to be communication across state lines. Federal laws must be enforced by the government, which means that an individual cannot take on this kind of case themselves. You are more likely to be successful with the federal government if you have a documented case with local law enforcement. If you feel that your case should be looked at on the federal level you can consult a combination of victim advocates, lawyers, and police departments.
- What federal laws deal with online harassment?
When considering federal offenses, different forms of online harassment often overlap with each other. According to the Department of Justice, these are the statutes commonly used:
- 18 U.S.C. § 2261A: Cyberstalking
Section 2261A(2) covers cyberstalking— stalking that occurs using Internet or telephones. Some of the considerations including that “the defendant act with the intent to kill, injure, harass, intimidate, or place under surveillance with intent to kill, injure, harass, or intimidate another person”. It also requires different actions (and not just one) that places the victim “in reasonable fear of the death of, or serious bodily injury to, the victim, the victim’s spouse or intimate partner, or to an immediate family member of the victim”.
- 47 U.S.C. § 223: Obscene or harassing telephone calls or texts
This statute makes it a crime to use a “telecommunications device” to knowingly send “any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication which is obscene or child pornography, with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass another person.”This could also apply to text with the intent to harass the victim. “However, it does not cover offenders who use the Internet—social media, Websites—to harass their victims”.
- 18 U.S.C. § 1030: Computer hacking
This statue contemplates “unauthorized access to a computer to obtain explicit photographs or other information belonging to the victim”. However, to be guilty of a violation, the Government must prove the following elements:
- “First, the defendant intentionally accessed a computer without authorization
- Second, the computer accessed was used in interstate and foreign commerce and communications, and
- Third, the defendant obtained information by that access.”
Keep in mind that you can report internet crimes to the FBI here.
- What state laws deal with online harassment?
Many state laws regarding stalking and harassment have been amended to include language addressing the use of electronic forms of communication to stalk or harass. Some states have also drafted new legislation focused specifically on the issue of online harassment. According to the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, 48 states have enacted “revenge porn (or nonconsensual porn)” laws which make it illegal to post sexual photos online without the subject’s consent.12 A number of online resources, including some of those listed below (such as Working to Halt Online Abuse & the Stalking Resource Center), offer state guides setting forth the online harassment laws of each state.
- What is the difference between a civil and criminal case?
A significant difference between the criminal and civil court systems is that in a civil case, the person experiencing harassment controls essential decisions shaping the case. It is the victim who decides whether to sue, accept a settlement offer, or go to trial. Criminal cases are considered offenses against the state, and the prosecutor works with the police (not you) to file the case in court as a representative of the state)
- Does online harassment fall under civil or criminal law?
Each of the federal online harassment laws discussed above fall under criminal law. However, people experiencing online harassment can also file a civil lawsuit against their harasser for defamation, invasion of privacy, or intentional infliction of emotional distress. Below is a description of each of these terms; please keep in mind that these terms can be subjective in the eyes of the law, and are usually left to be proven by the person who is bringing the charge.
A person may be legally responsible for written defamation (such as a tweet or a Facebook post) if he or she publishes a false statement that is damaging to a person’s reputation.13
- Invasion of Privacy
A person can be held legally responsible for an invasion of privacy that causes harm to the person experiencing online harassment.14 Invasions can take the form of:
- an intentional intrusion upon a person’s private affairs or concerns in a way that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person;15
- using the name or likeness (e.g. image or photo) of another for one’s own use or benefit;16
- publicizing a person’s private matter, which is not of legitimate concern to the public, in a manner that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person;17 or
- Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED)
A person can be held legally responsible for the intentional infliction of emotional distress if the person experiencing harassment can show that the defendant acted intentionally or recklessly; their conduct was extreme and outrageous; and the conduct was the cause of severe emotional distress.18
In the case of unauthorized online posts of sexual photos, commonly referred to as “revenge porn” or “nonconsensual porn,” the subjects of the photos can contact the host website and demand the removal of the photos under copyright law.19 Specifically, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the person in the photo automatically owns the copyright to that photo and has the right to send a DMCA takedown notice to a website’s operator. While an attorney can assist in drafting and submitting a DMCA notice, step-by-step self-guides are also available online.
More Information: Where can I get more information?
Additional information regarding legal rights and remedies under both federal and state law, and related resources, are available at: