The internet is huge, but it is still growing and our laws have to keep up. There are a lot of new circumstances that need to be explored legally, so that we can know where the legal limits are. Not to mention fight against the limits we don’t like.
Let me start with the situation. A man posted 8,000 some twitter posts and most of them were about one woman, Alyce Zeoli, a Maryland based Buddhist leader. None of them were pleasant and some of them were on a horror movie level of threatening. According to the N.Y. Times article, one said “Ya like haiku? Here’s one for ya. Long limb, sharp saw, hard drop,”* and another was “A thousand voices call out to (Victim 1) and she cannot shut off the silent scream.” There were also less creepy and just rude ones, but I’m sure you can imagine the range. Ms. Zeoli would block the accounts these tweets were coming from, but they would just start up again from another account. The prosecutors issued a warrant to Twitter and all the accounts were linked to the man’s home computer in California.
The interesting question here is whether or not this is illegal under the little know cyberstalking law. It is clearly threatening, but he was across the country and never made personal contact with her. People say cruel, hurtful and threatening things on the internet all of the time and it would be ridiculous and a violation of free speech if they were all hauled into court.
I think this is a different situation, though. The article doesn’t say how many aliases he used, but he used them. She tried to ignore him, which was the responsible and reasonable thing. He was saying some scary stuff, after all. When she ignored him, he just used another account and the impression I get is he did it a number of times. To me, under the assumption he repeatedly changed accounts, this is an abuse and warrants some kind of intervention. Blocking someone is a clear statement of “leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone”. Despite this message, which he clearly got since he would change accounts, he kept coming at her with threatening messages.
I don’t think this warrants jail time or anything like that. Like I said, he was never even on the same coast as her, but it was repeatedly threatening. This is when you should get internet restraining orders. It sounds kind of silly, but I think it makes sense. He is harassing her, so make it so he can’t contact her or he’s braking the law. All it would have to do is make it so he must inform her if he’s changing his twitter handle so that she can block it. Then he can rant all he likes from California and she doesn’t have to deal with it. This is all after he should get a psychological examination to see if he is likely to be a physical threat, which may be a different situation.
There shouldn’t be massive policing on the internet, but there should still be some. Just because it is a world of code doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be subject to some real world rules. It took years and deaths to get real world stalking laws on the books and I think we should learn from that struggle. Stalking, even cyber stalking, is something to deal with on a case by case basis and in order to do that we need to figure out the laws. I understand if you don’t agree with the government taking action in this, but I don’t think there is a downside to hashing out these laws.
* Don’t believe this is actually haiku… In my mind it makes it less threatening, but I’m not the one getting the creepy tweets.