Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark’s new legislation takes aim at internet harassment
On Tuesday, one congresswoman took aim at this culture of hatred online. Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark unveiled the Online Safety Modernization Act, which would criminalize a slew of abuses favored by trolls: the publication of a person’s private information, known as doxxing; blackmailing someone by threatening to reveal sexually explicit pictures or videos, called sextortion; and swatting, in which trolls call in fake reports — of an active shooter, a hostage situation — to police departments so a SWAT team descends on a victim’s home.
“We are seeing an increase — especially against women and girls — of very targeted crimes that happen online,” Clark, a Democrat who has been in Congress since 2013, told Cosmopolitan.com. “As we have millions of women and girls online every day, we need to make sure that our federal laws are keeping pace, and that we can keep people safe, and keep the internet open to all voices.”
Though Congress updated the Violence Against Women Act in 2006 to include online death threats, “federal prosecutors pursued only 10 of the estimated 2.5 million cases of cyberstalking between 2010 and 2013,” she wrote in a 2015 op-ed. And some law enforcement officials still don’t understand the very real threats that can come from trolls hiding behind a computer screen. They need to realize, Clark says, that “these are not just happening in a virtual world, but they often make the jump into a true physical threat.”
Officers who don’t understand these threats, she says, will often tell victims to just get off Twitter or close their laptops. But in 2017, when so many jobs require employees to have robust online presences, that’s not exactly an option. “It’s really not a choice just to turn it off,” Clark says.
Clark was inspired to tackle online harassment after one of her constituents, video game developer Brianna Wu, suffered an onslaught of internet abuse during the 2014 GamerGate movement. (Wu announced in December that the ordeal galvanized herto run for Congress.) Clark’s latest legislation, which is co-sponsored by Republican Reps. Susan Brooks of Indiana and Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania, would fund a comprehensive training program to teach law enforcement officials about these crimes, as well as make sure that every U.S. Attorney’s office designates at least one official to handle these investigations.
None of Clark’s previous six bills dealing with online harassment got a vote on the floor. The problem, she says, is that many of her colleagues don’t even know what swatting and other forms of online harassment are, let alone that they are pervasive in their own districts. She’s confident that as she continues to educate her colleagues on the existence of these trolling tactics, it will lay the groundwork for her latest legislation to pass.
It helped, she says, that she became a target herself. Last January, as Clark was sitting down to watch an episode of Veep with her husband, she heard sirens and saw the flashing lights of police cars outside her Boston-area home. When the officers told her they’d received an anonymous call that there was an active shooter in her home, she realized she’d been the victim of swatting. Because she’s an elected official, her local police department took the threat seriously.
“We want to make sure that every victim feels they have a place to go,” Clark says. “That when they call the police, the problem will be understood. And that it will be treated the same as any crime that might happen in close physical proximity.”