New Report Released: Few Legal Remedies for Victims of Online Harassment

For the last year, I’ve been working with Fordham’s Center on Law and Information Policy to research what legal remedies are available to victims of online harassment. We investigated cyberharassment law, cyberstalking law, defamation law, hate speech, and cyberbullying statutes. We found that although online harassment and hateful speech is a significant problem, there are few legal remedies for victims.

Report Highlights

  • Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides internet service providers(including social media sites, blog hosting companies, etc.) with broad immunity from liability for user-generated content.
  • Given limited resources, law enforcement personnel prioritize other cases over
    prosecuting internet-related issues.
  • Similarly, there are often state jurisdictional issues which make successful prosecution
    difficult, as victim and perpetrator are often in different states, if not different countries.
  • Internet speech is protected under the First Amendment. Thus, state laws regarding online
    speech are written to comply with First Amendment protections, requiring fighting
    words, true threats, or obscene speech (which are not protected). This generally means
    that most offensive or obnoxious online comments are protected speech.
  • For an online statement to be defamatory, it must be provably false rather than a matter of
    opinion. This means that the specifics of language used in the case are extremely
  • While there are state laws for harassment and defamation, few cases have resulted in
    successful prosecution. The most successful legal tactic from a practical standpoint has
    been using a defamation or harassment lawsuit to reveal the identities of anonymous
    perpetrators through a subpoena to ISPs then settling. During the course of our research,
    we were unable to find many published opinions in which perpetrators have faced
    criminal penalties, which suggests that the cases are not prosecuted, they are not appealed
    when they are prosecuted, or that the victim settles out of court with the perpetrator and
    stops pressing charges.
  • In offline contexts, hate speech laws seem to only be applied by courts as penalty
    enhancements; we could locate no online-specific hate speech laws.
  • Given this landscape, the problem of online harassment and hateful speech is unlikely to
    be solved solely by victims using existing laws; law should be utilized in combination
    with other practical solutions.

The objective of the project is to provide a resource that may be used by the general public, and in particular, researchers, legal practitioners, Internet community moderators, and victims of harassment and hateful speech online. If you’re working on online harassment, cyberbullying, revenge porn, or a host of related issues, we hope this will be of service to you.

Also, read it to find out the difference between calling someone a “bitch” and a “skank” online, what a “true threat” is, and why students are probably at the most risk of being prosecuted for online speech acts.

Download the report from SSRN

What’s the difference between SOPA and PIPA?

I decided to put my slightly-dormant internet policy research skillz to work to figure this out. It was surprisingly difficult. Most stop PIPA/SOPA websites conflate them– but they are different. (Note: The best resource was an article I found at Area 51 Technologies.)

#1: SOPA’s a House bill, PIPA is a Senate bill.
SOPA = House of Representatives
PIPA = Senate

The Senate tends to be older and more conservative than the House, meaning that it’s more likely to be completely clueless about the internet. That’s not good.

#2: PIPA has a greater chance of passing.

SOPA has gotten so much guff that it’s temporarily off the table. PIPA, on the other hand, has been relatively ignored and so is much farther along in the process.

#3: They are essentially the same “anti-piracy” bill, but with a few different provisions.

Both PIPA and SOPA focus on “foreign rogue websites” (e.g. the Pirate Bay, Wikileaks) that facilitate piracy. And they both establish systems for removing websites that the Department of Justice decides are “dedicated to infringing activities.”

PIPA does NOT have a provision that requires search engines to remove these “foreign infringing site[s]” from their indexes. SOPA does. And it’s been highly criticized.

PIPA does seem to require more court intervention to take down a site– that’s good, right?– but it DOESN’T have any provision that penalizes a copyright holder for making a false claim of infringement. In other words, a Big IP company can claim that a site is infringing, drag it through hella expensive litigation, be proven wrong, and the site can do nothing about its costs incurred in the process. SOPA DOES include a provision that penalizes copyright holders who do this “knowingly,” including making them liable for damages and legal costs.

#4: They both require DNS blocking.

Because this has been protested not only by civil rights groups and internet enthusiasts, but engineers and computer scientists who say that DNS blocking will damage internet infrastructure (like, say, the Domain Name System itself), the sponsors of SOPA and PIPA have agreed to strip this from both bills. They claim that this will eliminate much of the current opposition. (See related technical whitepaper. [PDF link])

The bills share many other odious traits, which are summarized by Katy Tasker from Public Knowledge in this handy chart:

Chart of the differences between PIPA and SOPA. The two bills are essentially the same.

Ultimately, PIPA and SOPA are not particularly different. They are slightly textually different versions of the same legislation– supported by the entertainment industry and, for the most part, heavily opposed by the technology industry (including us at SMC). If at this point you still haven’t called your senators or representatives, you can easily do so at