Legal expert: Improvements seen in fight against online hate crimes

Professor and author Danielle Keats Citron delivered the spring keynote address Thursday night in Elon's Lauren Dunne Astley Memorial Lecture program, which aims to promote healthy relationships between young men and women and prevent domestic violence.

People who engage in cyberstalking and online harassment terrorize victims in several ways, from threatening violence to intimidation to defamation and, in some instances, overloading websites with data to the extent that sites crash.

As a national legal expert in cyberstalking shared Thursday night to her Elon University audience, until recently, there was little that could be done to fight back.

Federal and state laws hadn’t kept up with the evolution of online communications. Law enforcement officers can be unfamiliar with the technology by which harassment takes place, and the processes to identify perpetrators. Even technology companies have been slow to censor or remove posts out of concerns for First Amendment rights.

The times they are a-changin’.

Legal scholar Danielle Keats Citron from the University of Maryland School of Law visited campus March 10, 2016, to talk with the Elon University community about advancements in the prevention of cyberharassment and prosecution of people who use online technologies to stalk and threaten their victims.

Her talk, “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace: Charting a New Course for the 21st Century,” was based on her book of the same name. “It’s an encouraging time to talk with you about cyberstalking,” Citron told her Whitley Auditorium audience. “We’ve made some significant strides.”

Cyberspace crimes have made news in recent years from stories stemming from “Gamergate” and women who have been harassed for raising allegations of sexism in gaming culture, to the dissemination of nude photos hacked from private cell phones. Social norms and expectations are shifting, Citron said, to where victims of “revenge porn” are no longer chastised for having taken nude photos of themselves.

Instead, many more people now believe it is an infringement of privacy for people to share or steal such nude photos without permission, Citron said. She pointed to the public’s reaction last year when actress Jennifer Lawrence acknowledged her own nude photos had been published online without consent.

The reaction nowadays is “that’s wrong,” Citron said. But it’s not celebrities comprising the vast number of victims whose nude images are posted online or who receive threats for prosecuting their harassers.

“The truth of the matter is, it’s the everyday person – the nurse, the dentist, the graduate student, the stay-at-home parent – who is more often the victim of abuse,” Citron said.

Over 80 percent of all employers use search engines to research job candidates, Citron added. When employers find negative material, it’s frequently linked to inappropriate photos. The problem is that in most cases involving nudity, the person in those photos never consented to them being shared.

And in some instances, when “mobs” of a defendant’s supporters attack the victim online, threats are also made against family members, friends, and even places of employment.

“The fallout from the abuse is profound. It’s really hard for victims of online harassment to get a job or keep a job,” Citron said. “It’s just so much easier and so much cheaper (for companies) to hire someone who comes without baggage.”

Laws are beginning to catch up, Citron said. In a growing number of states, through both legislative and judicial actions, those who commit cyber harassment and stalking can no longer claim First Amendment protections. Rape threats. Nude photos. Defamation. “They contribute so little to the kinds of ideas we need to govern ourselves, and they drive people from participating in public conversation,” Citron said.

She also praised companies such as Google and Bing for deindexing nude photos posted without consent. The idea that nude photos won’t come up in searches is “nirvana” for victims, Citron said. Facebook, Reddit and Twitter also have been more aggressive in removing non-consensual pornography.

“These are really important steps in the right direction,” she said.

In addition to her work at the University of Maryland, Citron is an Affiliate Fellow at the Yale Information Society Project, an Affiliate Scholar at the Stanford Center on Internet and Society, and a Senior Fellow at the Future of Privacy. She has presented her research at congressional briefings, federal agencies, the House of Commons, meetings of the National Association of Attorneys General, and digital companies like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. Her articles have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Forbes, TIME, Slate and other news outlets.

Earlier in the day, Citron visited with Elon University School of Law students and faculty as part of Elon’s Technology and Law Speaker Series. Some of the same Elon Law faculty and students at the lunchtime conversation in Greensboro, North Carolina, visited main campus for the evening talk.

The lecture was part of a grant provided by the Lauren Dunne Astley Memorial Fund to promote healthy relationships between young men and women and prevent domestic violence. The program is presented by Elon’s Women’s, Gender, and Sexualities Studies, and is co-sponsored by the Office of the Provost for Inclusive Communities, the School of Communications, and the Gender and LGBTQIA Center.

Lauren Astley would have been a member of the Class of 2015 before her ex-boyfriend murdered her on July 3, 2011. He was later convicted in a Massachusetts court and sentenced to life in prison. Astley’s father, Malcolm, attended the lecture.

“Ultimately, we hope the programming supported by the Lauren Dunne Astley Memorial Fund will encourage and enhance meaningful campus conversations,” Associate Professor L. Kim Epting, the WGSS program coordinator, said in opening the Thursday program. “Fundamentally, effective relationships are grounded in mutual respect and responsibility.”

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