Online Harassment Is Nothing New. So Why Haven't Laws Caught Up?

I received my first online death threat in 1992. I was 19, running a small bulletin board system out of my bedroom in rural Sonoma County. One of my users, who went by the handle of Indian, starting using my BBS' message boards to harass other users. The remedy seemed obvious: I restricted his access so he couldn't post and told him he was going to be on probation for a while. In response, he told me he was going to find out where I lived, come to my house, and kill me.

When you joined any BBS, there were a couple of basic rules: one, don't feed the trolls, and two, be flameproof. I was extremely shy, which made it easy to disengage when I recognized trolling behavior. But I was also sensitive, which made it tough to weather the flames -- the scathing comments from users who had a nasty streak. But I knew that death threats were illegal in California, though, and I had access to Indian's real name and contact information, so I went to the local police to file a report. They were baffled; they didn't know what a BBS was and they didn't understand how a death threat communicated electronically was the same as one delivered during a telephone call. But they gave me a form to fill out, saying I could make a report if I wanted to. I did.

Because I had his phone number, I called his mom. I told her what he had said to other users and to me. I told her there was a police report in his name. She denied everything, claiming that her son would never do the things I was describing. At the time, I was heartbroken that she didn't believe me, but in retrospect, I can see why she didn't take the word of a stranger claiming her son was harboring a violent side. However, after that call, he disappeared from the local BBSes, including mine. Even if the police didn't understand me and his mom didn't believe me, the harassment stopped.

I'm a female who's been online since 1991, which means my adult life is peppered with online harassment stories the way a country dog is peppered with ticks. Shortly after I joined the Sonoma County BBS scene, a boyfriend showed me Internet Relay Chat, a precursor to today's instant-messaging systems. On IRC, you could join specific channels where like-minded users hung out and chatted about goth culture or their favorite programming languages. Back then, IRC was just small enough that you could search for the handles of everyone who was logged in at the time. Some guys did this for the express purpose of singling out the ladies.

At the time, females were still a distinct minority online. While there were an overwhelming number of decent guys on IRC and elsewhere, the trolls were also making themselves known. Once they'd identified the users they thought were female (my online name was obviously feminine), they'd chat us up. Women online even had a term for them back then: Horny Net Geeks, or HNGs. They, too, had a shorthand, asking "A/S/L?" to request a user's age, sex and location, as if you could determine whether a conversation was worthwhile based on those criteria. I've never been keen to participate in discussions that were instigated on the grounds that I might have breasts, so I tended to shut them down pretty quickly.

More often than not they went away without a fight, but others would get increasingly histrionic when rebuffed, either claiming I wasn't "worth the effort" or threatening me in some way. It got old. None of it rose to the level of criminal harassment, although I don't doubt that happened elsewhere on IRC. Tracking these trolls down would have been more difficult than with my BBS user, but not impossible, given that most IRC users were students connected to the Internet through their university accounts, where real names were common.

I sometimes envied the women who'd had the foresight to choose a gender-neutral handle online, but was reluctant to change my own. I'd been using it long enough that it had become the only way some folks could find me. I'd also registered it with the IRC bot that tracked usernames and kept others from squatting on it. It was mine, and I wasn't going to let a handful of trolls scare me away from it.

More than a decade after that first death threat, the legal world still hadn't really caught up with the concept of online harassment. After I broke off a friendship with a man who had repeatedly trampled my boundaries, I told him I didn't want to hear from him ever again. It didn't stop him. He sent me letters. He posted about me on his blog, both publicly and in posts only certain people -- many of them our mutual friends -- could see. He replied to my online comments, not respecting that this was communication and it was unwanted.

I wanted to be left alone, and it was clear that my own say-so wasn't going to be enough, so I explored my options. The police wouldn't let me file a report, saying that unless I was being threatened they couldn't do anything. I talked to an attorney about taking out a restraining order. She said I could try, but explained that doing so would give my ex-friend a criminal record, which was further than I wanted to go. She recommended drawing up a cease and desist letter, noting that if it provoked further harassment, then a restraining order could follow. I hired a second attorney who specialized in domestic abuse, stalking and harassment to help me with the letter. He, too, told me there was a chance that a cease and desist letter would provoke worse behavior. I thought that was probably unlikely, but if it happened, I knew I had more tools at my disposal.

He sent the letter, and the effect was immediate. The communication stopped. My ex-friend locked down his blog and other online presences. Although I couldn't see if he was posting about me anymore, he also steered clear of me on social media and didn't mention me publicly anymore. Unfortunately, a number of our mutual friends thought I'd gone too far, and cut themselves off from me. Ultimately those losses were good for me, but at the time they added heartbreak on top of fear.

I'm not at all surprised that online harassment and its nasty cousin, revenge porn, have continued into present-day social media. Many of the larger social platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, have grown so large so quickly that they aren't able to keep up with such behavior or track down the often-anonymous users behind it. People don't have to tell the truth about who they are online, and if one account is banned, they can set up another one within minutes. Many of the old rules don't apply, including "don't feed the trolls" -- trolls will bother you even when you aren't engaging them. Worse, a whole culture has arisen around online harassment, where trolls team up to reveal a victim's personal information or attempt to drive her offline or even out of her home.

Meanwhile, police, attorneys and the courts struggle to understand how technology works and how online threats compare to the ones slipped through your mail slot or left on your answering machine. To some extent, that's because the laws governing harassment and privacy were crafted decades ago, long before legislators contemplated that much of our lives would be lived online.

I am surprised and relieved, however, that online misogyny and threats are finally getting journalists' attention. Feminist video-game critic Anita Sarkeesian's situation made the New York Times, while video game designer Zoe Quinn's was featured in the New Yorker. This week, John Oliver highlighted law enforcement's total lack of ability to handle online harassment in a new segment devoted to the issue. "That's a problem, because the police cannot investigate the crime if they genuinely don't understand the medium in which it happened," he said. "This does not just affect women in gaming. It could potentially affect any woman who makes the mistake of having a thought in her mind and then vocalizing it online."

This time, there's at least some potential for the law to change. California's Attorney General, Kamala Harris, has been attacking revenge porn -- or, as she calls it, cyber exploitation -- in a major way. California Congresswoman Jackie Speier is re-introducing her bill, called the Intimate Privacy Protection Act, which would make revenge porn a federal crime. It has a long way to go, since it means she'll have to convince both a gridlocked Congress and the tech industry to make this a priority, but Google recently said it would remove revenge porn from search results and reddit is taking a number of steps to curb harassment on its message boards. Twitter, which is ground zero for trolling and harassment, has taken steps but still has a long way to go, according to Women, Action & The Media. The tech world is starting to make efforts, at least.

Throughout most of my time online, there were enough moderators -- like me with my BBS, or volunteers on forums and mailing lists -- to handle disputes between users and ban trolls from the conversation. That concept got left out of the modern social-media blueprints, and victims are paying the price. This isn't about censorship or curtailing free speech; harassment and threats are illegal and always have been. Online trolls go as far as they do because there are no consequences, and that has to change. We need tech companies to recognize harassment as a threat to their platforms. We need updated laws that address the nuances of online communication. And we need a legal system made up of police, judges and attorneys who understand the online world well enough to recognize when someone has broken the law.