Internet Industry Efforts to Address the Cyber-Stalking Problem

Although the Internet industry has tried to combat abusive electronic communications overall, the industry as a whole has not addressed cyberstalking in particular. According to a review conducted as part of the preparation of the report, most major ISPs have established an address to which complaints of abusive or harassing electronic mail can be sent. In addition, these providers almost uniformly have provisions in their online agreements specifically prohibiting abusive or harassing conduct through their service and providing that violations of the policy will result in termination of the account.

In practice, however, ISPs have focused more on assisting their customers in avoiding annoying online behavior, such as receiving unsolicited commercial electronic mail ("spamming") or large amounts of electronic mail intentionally sent to an individual ("mail-bombing"); relatively less attention has been paid to helping victims of cyberstalking or other electronic threats. For some ISPs, the procedures for lodging complaints of online harassment or threats were difficult to locate, and their policies about what does or does not constitute a violation of service agreements were generally unhelpful. In addition, many ISPs do not inform their customers about what steps, if any, the ISP has taken to follow-up on their customer's complaint. These problems -- hard-to-locate complaint procedures, vague policies about what does and does not constitute prohibited harassment, and inadequate follow-up on complaints -- may pose serious obstacles to cyberstalking victims who need help.

Online industry associations respond that providing such protection to their customers is costly and difficult. Although they recognize that larger ISPs have begun to commit resources to dealing with harassment online, they caution that the costs of imposing additional reporting or response obligations upon ISPs may make it difficult for small or entrepreneurial ISPs to continue providing service at competitive rates. For example, the Commercial Internet Exchange, whose members carry approximately 75 percent of U.S. backbone traffic, cautions that no attempt to impose reporting requirements should be made unless fully justified by the record. However, according to the same group, the decentralized nature of the Internet would make it difficult for providers to collect and submit such data. Accordingly, the evidence of the scope of the cyberstalking problem is likely to remain for the forseeable future defined primarily by anecdotal evidence, with no basis to determine whether the phenomenon is growing, static, or declining.

Educating and protecting consumers.

Despite the difficulty in fully defining the scope of the cyberstalking problem, however, industry has made notable efforts to inform consumers about ways to protect themselves online. Such information is principally focused on protecting children and consumers on the Internet. For example, since 1996, the Internet Alliance, one of the key Internet industry groups, has worked with the Federal Trade Commission and government agencies on Project OPEN (Online Public Education Network). Project OPEN provides information about fraud, parental controls, and protecting privacy. Although this information is not specifically relevant to cyberstalking, much of the advice about protecting children and safeguarding privacy while online may be of assistance to individuals who want to use the Internet while protecting against potential cyberstalkers. More recently, a number of industry organizations have joined together to develop, GetNetWise.Com - a single, comprehensive online resource to help parents and children use the Internet in a safe and educational manner.

Other similar industry efforts have recently been announced to address other aspects of computer-related crime. For example, the Department of Justice and the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) announced the Cybercitizen Partnership in March 1999. This partnership is intended to boost cooperation between industry and government, expand public awareness of computer crime issues among children and adolescents, and provide resources for government to draw upon in addressing computer crime. The industry has also responded to the complaints of parents who are worried about the content available to their children over the Internet by announcing the "One Click Away" initiative to give parents important information about protecting their children in a central location. Similar education and outreach efforts, approached through cooperation between industry and government, may educate individuals concerned about these issues and therefore mitigate some of the dangers of cyberstalking.

In addition, other Internet industry sectors have begun to address aspects of the cyberstalking problem. Many of these solutions focus on the ability of individuals to protect themselves against unwanted communications. For example, most Internet "chat" facilities offer users the ability to block, squelch, or ignore chat messages or "paging" from individuals who are attempting to annoy or threaten them. Similarly, many e-mail users have tools which allow the users to block e-mail from individuals who are attempting to harass or annoy them. Such a solution may be useful in situations where the communications are merely annoying. Unfortunately, such a solution is less appropriate when threatening communications are received, because a victim who never "receives" the threat may not know they are being stalked, and may be alerted, for the first time, when the stalker shows up to act on the threat.

In another type of response, providers have begun to set up "gated communities" for individuals, families, and children. The techniques used by such communities are still in developmental stages, but they range from specialized servers, which allow potentially objectionable content to be filtered at the server, to designated areas for children and teens, which place restrictions on the amount or types of personal information that will be provided to others. Individuals who are concerned about being stalked may find refuge in such communities.

While these efforts all reflect important initiatives for self-protection, both industry and government representatives agree that a key component of addressing the cyberstalking problem is education and empowerment: If individuals are given clear direction about how to protect themselves against threatening or harassing communications, and how to report incidents when they do occur, both industry and law enforcement will be in a position to cooperate to conduct investigations.

Cooperation with law enforcement.

Both industry and law enforcement benefit when crime over the Internet is reduced. In particular, the Internet industry benefits significantly whenever citizen and consumer confidence and trust in the Internet is increased. Accordingly, both industry and law enforcement recognize the need to cooperate more fully with one another in this area. Industry representatives have noted that contact between industry and law enforcement -- particularly in the area of harassment -- is sporadic and episodic. Industry representatives, who were consulted as part of the preparation of this report, indicated their willingness to participate in training efforts for law enforcement. Law enforcement -- particularly on the state and local level, who will often be first responders to cyberstalking complaints -- should be willing to engage industry in dialogue and take advantage of the expertise offered by industry in designing training programs. Moreover, closer cooperation between law enforcement and industry will help to ensure that law enforcement officers know who at the ISPs to call and how to proceed when they receive a complaint, and ISPs have a contact in law enforcement when they receive a complaint that warrants intervention by law enforcement.


[Compiled from 1999 Report on Cyberstalking: A New Challenge for Law Enforcement and Industry, a Report from the Attorney General to the Vice President, August 1999].


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