When Will the Internet Be Safe for Women?

The fight to make law enforcement take online threats seriously

Andres Stapff / Reuters

The 911 call came in just before 10 o’clock on a Sunday night. The voice on the other end of the line was unnerving—it sounded automated, like a computer. This was odd, but there was no time to waste: Something terrible was reportedly unfolding at the suburban home of Katherine Clark, a Massachusetts congresswoman.

Although it was January, it was unseasonably warm for New England. Not knowing about the swarms of police scrambling toward their home, Clark and her husband were settling in after a relaxing family weekend—their oldest son had been visiting from college. “Then my husband and I noticed that there were a lot of police lights in the front lawn,” Clark said. “I immediately thought something was going on at the neighbor’s house.”

So Clark went outside to find out what was happening. “That’s when I realized there were large lights on our house, and our street was blocked off,” Clark told me. “A police officer was on the front lawn with a long gun.”

Law enforcement had turned out in force, responding to a tip about an active shooter at Clark’s house—a report that turned out to be false and, Clark believes, a reaction to her legislative efforts to fight online harassment. What the Clarks likely experienced is known as swatting, the term for when someone deceives law enforcement into responding to a made-up emergency.

Months before all this, Clark had introduced the Interstate Swatting Hoax Act of 2015, a bill that would prohibit the false reporting of emergency situations—just the way federal law addresses bomb threats and fake reports of terrorism. Back in November, after first filing the legislation, Clark had talked to her local police about the possibility that she might become a target of such hoaxes because of the bill—but she still wasn’t prepared for what she experienced that night in January.

“There was just that moment of panic that something very bad was about to happen or had happened,” Clark told me. “As much as I had heard about swatting, it’s a very different situation when you are all of the sudden standing between your family—between your children—and a very engaged, active police presence in your front yard.”

Standing on the lawn, illuminated by a flood of police lights, an officer described the strange and alarming call they’d received. Clark immediately realized what had happened. If she hadn’t known about swatting already, she says, “I can only imagine that initial terror would continue.”

The experience was scary, but it left Clark more motivated than ever. “It definitely deepened my commitment to this issue and our resolve to make sure that we are taking these crimes—crimes that may be perpetrated virtually—as seriously as we take crimes that happen in our neighborhoods.”

Fighting online harassment, including swatting, has been a legislative priority for Clark ever since one of her constituents, the video-game designer Brianna Wu, was the target of a deluge of death threats and harassment during the video-game industry controversy known as Gamergate.

“Any woman who is using the Internet for her professional life or for her personal life has come across that moment where there is all of the sudden a hateful or sexist comment coming back at you,” Clark said. “You do internalize it, and even though it is not someone directly in front of you, there is something about the anonymous nature of it—when you don’t know where a threat is coming from—that really gets into someone’s psyche.”

What Wu experienced was worse than most. Both men and women face widespread harassment online, but Gamergate involved a host of threats against women specifically—and high-profile women like Wu, in particular. In general, much of the worst harassment, including attacks that go beyond name-calling to include stalking and sexual harassment, is disproportionately targeted at women, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center.

“When we heard of what Brianna Wu was going through, and really started looking into Gamergate and how extreme—not only the level of threats that were coming in, but the velocity with which they were attacking women; really a 24/7 onslaught of hateful threats and comments. This shouldn’t just be something that we accept as part of women using technology in their work lives and in their personal lives.”

But many women are told they must accept just that: If you don’t like the way you’re being treated online, you should log off.

Two years ago, the journalist Amanda Hess wrote for Pacific Standard about the hailstorm of threats she was receiving online. Among them were messages like: “Happy to say we live in the same state. Im looking you up, and when I find you, I’m going to rape you and remove your head,” and “You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you. I promise you this.”

As a journalist who often writes about feminism and Internet culture, Hess was used to being harassed online. But one day, after a string of particularly frightening threats, she called the police.

Two hours later, a Palm Springs police officer lumbered up the steps to my hotel room, paused on the outdoor threshold, and began questioning me in a steady clip. I wheeled through the relevant background information: I am a journalist; I live in Los Angeles; sometimes, people don’t like what I write about women, relationships, or sexuality; this was not the first time that someone had responded to my work by threatening to rape and kill me. The cop anchored his hands on his belt, looked me in the eye, and said, “What is Twitter?”

In recent years, several people—many of them women—have reported similar responses when they’ve sought help from the police. “One of the themes we kept hearing was, the response from police was well intentioned—the police wanted to help—but there was a clear lack of understanding,” Congresswoman Clark told me. “We’ve had [law enforcement] ask, ‘Well, what is Twitter?’ and, even recently, a Boston judge saying to one of the victims, ‘You just have to go offline.’ We hear, ‘It’s virtual, and you just have to turn off the computer and walk away.’”

“When I report a serious death threat to the police, this is what happens,” Wu, the video-game designer, told me in April. “Invariably, a local cop comes to my house and instructs me to stay off social media. I cannot have a career without that online presence.”

In Clark’s view, the disconnect between what people are experiencing online and how police officers are responding represents a training opportunity. That’s why, in March, she introduced the Cybercrime Enforcement Training Assistance Act, a proposal that would provide federal grant money to local law enforcement for the prevention, enforcement, and prosecution of online crimes against individuals. Funding for better resources is also one clear legislative path on a subject that is, for many reasons, tough to address from a regulatory perspective.

“I really think with local police, it comes down to just nothing in their training presents [online harassment] as a crime,” she said. “Law enforcement and judges need to have some fundamental understanding of the nature of these crimes, because many of them are crimes under existing laws.”

In most states, there are already laws pertaining to cyberstalking or other escalated forms of online harassment, according to Police Chief magazine. At the federal level, the Justice Department defines cyberstalking as using “the Internet, e-mail, or other electronic communications devices to stalk another person,” with “stalking” referring to  repeated harassing or threatening behavior. Enforcement, however, is tricky. If someone reports being harassed, and if local police decide to seek the perpetrator—both are big “if”s—investigations often cross state lines, and involve seeking perpetrators who are hiding behind anonymous accounts. Beyond that, even in cases where police identify the person responsible for the harassment, the results of an investigation get passed through a legal system that, historically, has not prioritized prosecuting online harassers.

Last year, when the FBI told Clark that cases involving online harassment are not priority for them, she called on the Department of Justice to intensify their efforts to use existing laws to investigate and prosecute the worst cases of abuse. “The federal government is not responsible for policing the Internet, but it is responsible for protecting the women who are being threatened with rape and murder in violation of existing federal law,” she wrote in an op-ed for The Hill last year.

“In 2006, Congress recognized the real-life dangers of online harassment and amended the Violence Against Women Act to make online threats of death or serious injury illegal,” Clark wrote. “Yet, even though it is a federal crime, federal prosecutors pursued only 10 of the estimated 2.5 million cases of cyber-stalking between 2010 and 2013.”

Several police departments in metro areas don’t keep records or statistics related to online harassment, or swatting, they told me. Law-enforcement officials in New York, San Francisco, Austin, and Los Angeles declined to describe how officers are trained to respond to complaints of serious online harassment. But there are hints that some police departments are beginning to take such incidents seriously. In Philadelphia, for instance, a police spokeswoman told me that officers make no distinction from threats lobbed online versus anywhere else.

“Regardless of the type of communication—if it’s social media, in-person, or through the mail—it’s going to be handled the same way,” said Tanya Little, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Police Department. Detectives will conduct an investigation and submit findings to the District Attorney, who then decides how to prosecute, she said. “As things change in the world, law enforcement has to adjust. It takes time. The laws catch up with the crime, and then law enforcement catches up with the laws, and we go from there.”

Little also says that officers in Philly know not to respond to a complaint of harassment by telling someone to stay offline. “We’re not going to restrict someone from their right to use social media,” she said. “You should have the freedom, without being harassed, to do what you want.”

Freedom, but also protection, Clark says. Part of convening in any public forum—online or off—may entail “coarse language” and “opinions that are a personal affront,” she says, but harassment and threats are unacceptable and should be treated as such. “If it crosses the line, and really is a threat to your safety,” Clark says, “My goal is for every woman to know that there’s going to be help for you and you will be able to have a law-enforcement system that is going to assist and bring safety back to you and allow you to continue to earn a living and have a professional life online that is not thwarted by this criminal behavior.”