Klobuchar, panel address changing face of harassment online

New technologies provide more opportunities for online aggressors.
October 22, 2010

The Internet has changed the face of bullying.

People say and do things online they wouldn’t do in real life. Before technology became such a huge part of children’s lives, bullying stayed on the playground and victims could escape to their homes and families.

“This type of bullying is very different,” Shayla Thiel-Stern, a University of Minnesota professor of new media studies, said Thursday. “It follows you home at night.”

Forty-three percent of teens reported they’ve been cyber-bullied in the past year, according to a 2007 study by the National Crime Prevention Council.

Recent high-profile cases have drawn attention from politicians, media analysts and lawmakers.

Thiel-Stern and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., addressed the “epidemic” of cyberbullying Thursday morning during a panel discussion at Augsburg College.

“In the hands of a bully, a computer with an Internet connection is a dangerous – even deadly – weapon,” Klobuchar said.

Klobuchar reminded the panel and audience of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University student who committed suicide after a roommate posted videos of him online, and Erin Andrews, an ESPN reporter who was secretly videotaped by a stalker from the peephole to her hotel room. She said these were examples of how new technology is changing the way people need to think about stalking, harassment and bullying.

Klobuchar is working with Andrews and other legislators to enact better anti-stalking laws. This summer, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Simplifying the Ambiguous Law, Keeping Everyone Reliably Safe, or STALKERS, Act of 2010. Klobuchar introduced the bill to the Senate in July, and it was referred to the judiciary committee, of which she is a member.

The bill would amend the definition of stalking. Current laws state that stalking must be with intent to do physical harm, but the new definition includes “intent to cause emotional distress.” It also sets up a best practices report by the attorney general to determine how to best enforce anti-stalking laws.

Klobuchar and Thiel-Stern sat down with Nicky Jackson-Colaco, policy manager for Facebook, detective Brian Hill of the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office and parent activist Lynn Miland. The group represented a comprehensive approach to combating online aggression that includes cooperation between companies, families, law-makers and law enforcement.

While the panel focused on kids and families, Thiel-Stern addressed the online issues college students face as well.

Most of today’s college students have been on Facebook since it began in 2005 and haven’t really had any education on the ramifications of what they do online, Thiel-Stern said.

“It is important not to forget that college students need lessons in civility online.”

When instances of cyberbullying, stalking and harassment occur, law enforcement officers track the user’s I.P. address to find out the identity of the perpetrator, Hill said.

Hill said technology is easily exploited to stalk and harass people and that certain types of cameras and GPS monitors are marketed toward stalkers.

The Internet is also a tool to harass people who report crimes, he said, recalling the case of a woman who reported being sexually assaulted and then received comments that she was a liar on her Facebook page.

Facebook policy manager Nicky Jackson-Colaco said reporting features on the site were like a huge “neighborhood watch” program with users policing the site for dangerous and inappropriate content.

“Bullying never really happens one-on-one,” she said, emphasizing that bystanders needed to reach out in support of victims of bullying and stand up to people who post harmful comments.

The site prioritizes reports of self-harm, bullying and pornography. Jackson-Colaco said the most powerful action Facebook can take to eliminate these behaviors is to threaten to remove the violator’s account.

Concerns were raised over what constitutes bullying and hate speech and what could be considered humor and satire on Facebook. For instance, an audience member asked the panel if a group called “I bet this pickle can get more fans than Nickleback” would be considered harmful.

Klobuchar responded by saying the legislation is carefully crafted to avoid violating free speech.

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