Peculiarities of Cyberspace
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Stalked in cyberspace
The internet and other telecommunication technologies rapidly pervade every remote corner of our economy and culture, politics and leisure, and in our private lives. The internet is an attractive medium, which can, in principle, facilitate and accelerate all our interpersonal relations, and even add new qualities to them. But just like other revolutionary technologies the internet doesn't only offer an enormous potential for progression, but also for improper use and abuse. The medium that can help us to engage in or maintain personal or intimate relations can also be abused to harass people, to threaten and torture them with sexual harassment. The internet has created a new type of criminality: cyberstalking.
Stalking = constant harassment
The English verb 'to stalk' originally meant 'creep up on', 'pursue'. At present it is also used for constantly harassing someone with visits, phone calls, letters, e-mails, etc. By now the word stalking has also been included in sign-language.
Cyberstalking is a serious problem. Because more people are going to make use of the internet and other telecommunication technologies, it is expected that cyberstalking will increase in scope and complexity. In order to trace the peculiarities of cyberstalking, we will start by mapping conventional ('offline') stalking first.
What is cyberstalking?
"Make no mistake: this kind of harassment can be as frightening and as real as being followed and watched in your neighborhood or in your home" [Al Gore]
There is no such thing as a universally accepted definition of cyberstalking.Cyberstalking is the repeatedly harassing or threatening of an individual via the internet or other electronic means of communication. A cyberstalker is someone with amorous and/or sexual motives who constantly harasses someone else electronically: via the bulletin board, chat box, e-mail, spam, fax, buzzer or voice-mail. Stalking generally involves the constant harassment or threatening of someone else: following a person, appearing at someone's house or workplace, making harassing phone calls, leaving written messages or objects, or vandalizing someone's property. Because the stalking activities are so diverse and have to be seen in their connection it is difficult to give a precise description of stalking [Royakkers 2000:3].
In the next table the defining characteristics of stalking have been summarized:
Deliberately and consistently
harassment or intimidation of
Invasion in physical or symbolic privacy.
Undesired proximity (physical, visual or virtual).
Undesired communication (face-to-face or mediated).
Threats (explicit or implicit; verbal or written).
Or a combination thereof.
Slur of (feeling of) safety.
Stalking as a process
In the case of stalking harassing someone else is no incident but a continuous process. Contrary to other offences that usually consist of an illegal act, stalking consists of a series of actions, which in themselves can be legal, such as phoning, sending flowers or e-mails [Baas 1998]. “Stalking is a form of mental assault, in which the perpetrator repeatedly, unwantedly, and disruptively breaks into the life-world of the victim, with whom he has no relationship (or no longer has), with motives that are directly or indirectly traceable to the affective sphere. Moreover, the separated acts that make up the intrusion cannot by themselves cause the mental abuse, but do taken together (cumulative effect)” [Royakkers 2000:7].
In the following definition of A.P. de Boer [Zwartboek] the specific characteristics of stalking are brought together: “The long-term repetitively stickily querulously parasitical besieging of the victim, under the guise of admiration or courtship, but with the barely veiled intention to torment the victim mentally.”
Given the lack of clarity of the clinical definition of stalking it is not surprising that a legal or operational definition of stalking is controversial as well. In most legislation with regard to stalking it is demanded that the offender utters a 'credible threat' towards the victim. Sometimes it is even required that direct family-members of the victim have to be threatened. There are also laws in which stalking is defined less restrictively and which only require that the offender's behavior leads to an implicit threat. They reckon with the fact that stalking often only or in the first place has a psychological character: the stalker harasses his or her victim to harm him or her psychologically.
In case of the criminal prosecution of stalkers it is often difficult to make a reasonable case for a ‘credible’ threat. Stalkers often don’t threaten their victims openly or personally. More likely they show behavior that causes fear of violence in the specific context. In case of cyberstalking it is even more difficult to make a reasonable case for a ‘credible threat’, because the stalker is often unknown to the victim and usually operates from a great distance.
Behavior can be annoying or threatening but it isn't covered by legislation. Yet, such behavior can be a foreplay to stalking and violence or threat of violence and should therefore be treated seriously. Every year 60 to 70 women die in the Netherlands after having been stalked by their ex-husband or ex-partner. “The perpetrator wants to play the leading part in the lives of the victim and her relatives. If that doesn't work out, he wants the ultimate part: killing his victim” [Jack Kantelberg, Stop Stalking].
Sound legislation forbids behavior that places someone in a position in which fear of death or physical injury is a reasonable possibility. Only for some years now stalking has been described as a separate phenomenon in criminology, and in most countries stalking is not treated as a separate offence by the police and judiciary [Baas 1998]. However, the phenomenon stalking has become more and more a subject of interest in the last years.
Peculiarities of Cyberstalking
Online stalking and intimidation can take the most diverse shapes, but shares important characteristics with offline stalking:
Special versions of the psychotic stalkers are the erotomaniac stalkers. Mostly they are women who believe that their object of desire is in love with them. An example of this: fanatical fans of sports heroes, pop singers and other media stars. Therefore they are called celebrity stalkers.
Many online or offline stalkers are motivated by a psychopathic or psychotic desire to have control over their victims and display obsessive behavior to reach this goal. Psychopathic stalkers suffer from a personality flaw but are conscious of the problematic character of their behavior. Psychotic stalkers, on the contrary, are not conscious of their behavior. They suffer from a psychological disorder and image that the victims are their partners [Kienlen a.o. 1997; Skoler 1998; Mullen a.o. 1999; Kamphuis/Emmelkamp 2000]. On the pretext of: “She loves me, only she doesn't know it yet.”
The majority of the stalkers are men and the majority of their victims are women. But there are also cases of women stalking men.
In many cases the stalker and the victim used to have a relationship: stalking begins when the victim tries to break off the relationship. However, there are also many cases of stalking by strangers.
Due to the enormous quantity of personal information available on the internet, the cyberstalker can easily locate private information on a potential victim.
Since cyberstalking implies no physical contact the misconception may arise that it is not as bad as physical stalking. This definitely isn't always the case.
- As the internet becomes an increasingly integral part of our personal and professional lives, stalkers can take advantage of the ease of communication and of the grown access to personal information.
- The ease of use and non-confronting, impersonal and sometimes anonymous character of internet communication can remove or lower barriers for cyberstalking.
- Potential stalkers are often unwilling to or incapable of approaching their victim personally or by phone, but hesitate less to harass their victim via electronic communications.
- Just like in the case of physical stalking, online harassment and intimidation are often a prelude to more serious aggressive behavior, including physical violence.
Stalkers are usually motivated by a desire to control the victim.
Local stalking usually requires the stalker and the victim to be localized in the same geographical area; cyberstalkers can be localized anywhere (on the other side of the street, town, country or world).
The majority of the cases concern stalking by former intimate friends, although there are unknown stalkers in the local and virtual world. .
Electronic communication makes it much more easy for cyberstalkers to encourage a third party to harass and/or threaten a victim.
Most victims are women; most stalkers are men.
Electronic communication lowers the barriers for stalking and threats; a cyberstalker can evade a physical confrontation with his victim.
There are many similarities between offline and online stalking. Internet and other communication technologies, however, offer new possibilities for stalkers to pursue their victims. It is an existing problem, aggravated by new technology.
A cyberstalker can repeatedly send threatening and intimidating messages by the simple click on a button. Some cyberstalkers use special programmes to send messages at set or random moments without being physically present at the computer. A cyberstalker can get other internet users to do his dirty work for him and harass or threaten a victim by making use of a discussion forum, bulletin board or chat room. For example by placing controversial or tempting messages with the name, phone number or e-mail address of the victim. This results in messages being sent to the victim. Every message —of the actual cyberstalker or others— will have the intended effect on the victim, but the cyberstalker's efforts are minimal. Besides, the lack of direct contact between the cyberstalker and the victim makes it more difficult for the judiciary and police to identify the stalker, and to localize and arrest him.
The anonymity of the internet offers new chances for would-be cyberstalkers. The true identity of a cyberstalker can be hidden by using different providers or by adopting various screen names. More experienced stalkers use anonymous remailers or anonymizers that make it nearly impossible to trace the true identity of the source of an e-mail or other electronic communication.
Anonymity places the cyberstalker in an advantageous position. Being unknown to the target, the stalker can be in another country, province, around the corner of the street or in the next workstation. The perpetrator can be a former friend or lover, a complete stranger met in a chat room, or a teenager who wants to play a joke. The victim feels powerless because it is often impossible to identify the source of the threat. The veil of anonymity can encourage the perpetrator to continue his stalking. Knowing that their identity is unknown, offenders are often more inclined to pursue the victim at work or at home. And the internet offers substantial information that is needed to do so. Several websites offer personal information, including non-registered phone numbers and detailed information on home and office addresses. Other websites offer (against payment) social security numbers, financial data and other personal information.
Cyberstalking in practice
Stalking knows many versions. Unasked-for e-mail is one of the most common forms of stalking, including spiteful, obscene or threatening mail. Other forms are sending viruses or large quantities of junk mail to the victim. Because the most common forms of conventional stalking take place via phone and sending letters [Mullen a.o. 1999], it is not surprising that stalkers use e-mail [Ogilvie 2000].
Cyberstalkers are often very clever at making use of a complete repertoire of techniques and methods. The following examples are an illustration of this.
- In 1998 the 50-year old security employee Gary Dellapenta from California and the 28-year old Brandi Barber had a brief relationship. When Barber showed Dallapenta the door after a few months he started threatening her by e-mail. Next, Dellapenta acted on the internet as his former lover who told everyone in newsgroups and chat rooms that she fantasized of being raped. Dellapenta put Barber's address and phone number on the internet and even hinted at how to get round her alarm system. Meanwhile the real Barber received more and more annoying phone calls — usually in the middle of the night. Some men even paid her an unasked-for visit [Maharaj 1999]. Eventually Dellapenta was arrested and sentenced to six years imprisonment, based on the new legal prohibition of cyberstalking.
This example shows how stalkers can abuse false identities to stalk their victims. Adopting the identity of the victim herself is an extreme example of this. By publishing controversial or tempting messages in the name of the victim, the stalker tries to incite others to broaden the stalking.
- In Massachusetts a man was charged who used anonymous remailers to systematically harass a colleague. This reached a climax in an attempt to force sexual favors of the victim, under the threat of revealing sexual activities from the past to the victim's new husband.
This example shows that stalkers make use of various means to reveal their true identity in the electronic communication. In the case of cyberstalking the victims themselves often have no clue who their stalkers are. When stalkers also make an effort to reveal their true identity on the internet, it is going to be very difficult to trace the stalker.
- A graduate from the University of San Diego terrorized five female students for a whole year. The victims received hundreds of violent and threatening e-mails. The stalker had never met the victims.
This example shows that in the case of cyberstalking there often is no connection whatsoever between the stalker and the victim. The internet not only offers more risks of stalking by strangers, but also offers stalkers more possibilities to stalk more victims at the same time.
- A woman complains that a man has published a message on the internet which states that her 9-year old daughter is available for sex. She receives several phone calls and e-mails in which contact is sought with the girl.
This example, too, shows how powerful indirect stalking via the internet can be. In these cases the victim is not directly approached by the stalker. The stalker tries, usually by means of a message published under a pseudonym, to mobilize others to react to the misleading content of that message.
We emphasized before that stalking is an offence that exists of a series of actions, which in themselves can be legal, such as following, spying on or waiting for the victim, sending a letter or phoning, spreading false rumors on the victim, collecting information on the victim, whether or not under false pretexts, etc.
The consequences of stalking can be far-reaching for the victims. They are forced to curtail and/or change their social life out of fear of being found. Victims of stalking try to escape from their stalkers by moving house, changing their jobs, putting their children in another school, taking another phone number, avoiding public places like pubs, etc. Victims of permanent stalking often get psychological problems. They suffer from feelings of fear, chronic sleep disorders, fatigue and headaches. In case of physical stalking there is also physical damage involved. Finally, victims often suffer a financial loss as a consequence of their attempts to escape from the stalker, or because the stalker has succeeded in taking the bread out of the mouth of the victim.
Scope of cyberstalking
There are no encompassing and reliable data on the extent of cyberstalking. This is, on the one hand, the consequence of inconsistent definition and demarcation of the concept of stalking, and on the other hand of the fact that at a rough estimate half of the number of cases are not reported by the victims [Kamphuis/Emmelkamp 2000]. Fear of retaliation by the stalker is an important reason why victims of stalking do not report it. Research of the American Ministry of Justice in 1997 showed that one out of twelve women in the USA is confronted with stalking [National Violence Against Women Survey; Thaden/Thoennes 1997].
We do have more and more anecdotic and informal indications of the scope of cyberstalking at our disposal. These indications can be derived from information of police and justice, from the complaints submitted to the providers, and from some studies on stalking of students (such as the one of the University of Cincinnati).
Prevention is better...
Many cases of cyberstalking can be prevented. Here are some tips:
- See to it that you don’t give your personal data away to just anyone. If you are asked in a site to make your name and address public, don't do it;
- Don’t sign your e-mails or messages in newsgroups by definition with your name and phone number;
- Don’t use your own name in chat rooms but a pseudonym or screen name;
- Don’t make yourself too vulnerable before you have really met someone;
- Register the separate actions of the person who is stalking you. Keep a dossier as accurately as possible. Stalking involves a series of (in themselves often legal) actions;
- There are several ways to prevent stalking. The Dutch Central Hotline (Centrale Meldpunt) has drawn up a number of preventive measures for this.
- Possibilities for criminal prosecution: adjusting the legislation
By now, an anti-stalking law is effective in all states of the USA, just like in Canada, Australia, Great Britain and Belgium. In the Dutch legislation violation of the privacy is regarded as an element of the crime. By concentrating on the disruption of someone's life the police can in principle intervene early, before the threatening begins [Royakkers 2000]. The Dutch definition of the offence doesn't imply the restriction that the victim must be clearly damaged by the actions of the offender [Bass 1998].
On 12 July 2000 article 285b of the Criminal Code has become effective. With this article the penalization of stalking is provided for. The law against stalking has been effected on the initiative of the members of the Dutch Lower Chamber Boris Dittrich (D'66 - progressive liberals), Willie Swildens-Rozendaal (PvdA - social-democrats) and Otto Vos (VVD - conservative liberals). The article reads:
- “He, who illegally and systematically infringes on someone else's privacy with the intention to force the other to do something, not to do or to endure, or terrify someone, will be punished, if guilty of stalking, with an imprisonment of at the most three years or a fine of the fourth category (25.000 Dutch guilders);
- Prosecution will only take place after a complaint of the person against whom a crime has been committed.”
- The legislator has expressly tried to penalize the pre-phase (before the case escalates and a crime takes place). This allows the police to actively deal with the punishable character of the stalking actions and to protect the victims in a better way. Besides, the provisions have been described sufficiently technology-independent for application on the internet and other communication technologies. So, the provisions also count for digital stalking. In the first ten months of the existence of the stalking article the Public Prosecutor has already prosecuted 110 stalkers [Volkskrant, 10 July 2001]. The scholarly and political discussion on the stalking article has been excellently documented by Royakkers/van Klink .
- Preventive sanctions
When inflicting penalties on stalkers usually at first a civil street, town or contact restraining order is issued. There are doubts if such an injunction contributes to a greater safety of the victims, especially if their stalker has a record. Sometimes issuing such an restraining order leads to further escalation. Moreover, these restraining orders are regularly violated, in particular by the smaller category of psychopaths [see for critical nuances Royakkers/van Klink 2000:6]. A prohibition of 'physical proximity' is only useful "when the police disposes of sufficient personal and technical facilities to keep an eye on the perpetrator and take immediate action when he violates the restraining order" [Baas 1998].
The same technology that is used by stalkers to menace people can also be used to protect victims and to restrict the freedom of action of perpetrators. Victims can be electronically secured in their house and in their immediate surroundings. Stalkers can be placed under electronic surveillance to prevent them from coming too close to the victim's house. This is only effective when sanctions can be taken against stalkers who violate such a restraining order. However, this type of measures is not very effective for the practices of cyberstalking. How can a ban on 'virtual proximity' be realized?
- Lack of training and expertise
The police and judiciary have insufficient expertise in the field of cyberstalking. Therefore it is important that more expertise is acquired about (local and virtual) stalking and that special units are introduced that can effectively deal with these offences. Most police and juridical institutions still have insufficient experience to recognize the serious nature of cyberstalking and to investigate these crimes. Since 1995 many police forces in the Netherlands have a special stalking training for detectives. Finally, it is of great importance that the idea disappears 'that the police can't do anything about it' and that it's best not to report out of fear for retaliation by the stalker.
- Taking reports seriously
The majority of victims of cyberstalking don't report this to the police. They believe the stalking behavior hasn't reached the point yet of a criminal act, or that the police or judiciary won't take the complaint seriously. Reports have increased since the introduction of the anti-stalking law [Parool, 9.7.01]. Besides 'mobbing' (pestering at work by colleagues) and 'bullying' (constant pressure of employer on employee) stalking can also be reported to a central hotline [Centraal Meldpunt]. The Foundation Stop Stalking is a voluntary institution offering help to stalking victims and perpetrators.
- Interest groups and self-help groups
More and more victims of stalking don't let themselves get walked over, and they have organized themselves in interest groups and self-help groups. By now, there are two interest groups for stalking victims in the Netherlands. Also on the internet several initiatives have been taken, such as the web group stalking.wereld.nl and the self-help group Stalking Lotgenoten [Stalking Companions].
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