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UM law school professor Danielle Citron says that this year there was a ‘perfect storm nudging lawmakers to pay attention’ to the issue of revenge porn. (File photo)

Online attacks, real-life consequences

Widespread collection of personal data online frequently prompts debate about privacy, but there is one group of people that has largely managed to remain behind a wall of anonymity, says Danielle Citron: perpetrators of online threats and harassment.

“On the one hand, the government knows everything about us. … And at the same time, these anonymous posters can’t be found? They can’t both be true,” said Citron, a University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law professor.

Citron, who has researched and written about cyber attacks extensively, said the legal community seems to be slowly waking up to the need to treat online crimes seriously. Her book “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace,” scheduled for release in September, explores the impact of online threats and examines possible steps law enforcement could take to combat harassers on the Internet.

In many ways, she said, it’s a matter of resources — online stalkers typically aren’t impossible to track down, but authorities have to take the matter seriously instead of telling victims there’s nothing they can do.

“The really determined and smart harassers will be able to cover their tracks, but oftentimes harassers are just not that smart,” she said.

Citron spent several years researching the book, during which she interviewed about 60 victims of cyber harassment, online stalking and “revenge porn,” or nude images posted online without the subject’s consent. Some of these interviews were completed in a few hours over Skype, while others went on for days, she said.

The stories of three individual victims “animate the book,” Citron said, putting a complex legal issue in the context of its impact on real lives, including damage to the victims’ reputations and their ability to get a job or go to school. One victim whose story Citron highlights in “Hate Crimes” legally changed her name to escape online defamation and get a fresh start.

“She really had to declare that old life dead,” Citron said.

But such drastic measures shouldn’t be necessary. Some laws that could help victims get back their online lives and punish harassers simply aren’t being enforced or are too narrowly tailored, Citron said. For example, these laws might prohibit direct threats through email or a similar medium but do nothing to stop comments on a third-party site.

And even when a law does require a site to take down a post, such as a nude photo, if requested, the site might still refuse, knowing the victim will likely not be able to afford the cost of a lawsuit.

“[Victims] have very little leverage to use against site operators,” Citron said.

But despite the issue’s complicated nature, she said, the legal atmosphere is becoming more favorable for advocates. Eleven states passed bills criminalizing revenge porn this year, including Maryland, in a bill Citron helped Del. Jon Cardin draft.

“In writing the book, it was sort of the best timing, because so much was happening,” she said. “It really was this wonderful perfect storm nudging lawmakers to pay attention.”

The issue of revenge porn, in particular, seemed to strike a chord with lawmakers, perhaps because they could easily imagine how it could impact the lives of their loved ones, Citron said.

“Most of the threats we see online are targeted at women and are sexualized, and we don’t have the civil rights law to fill in that gap,” she said. “The law is absolutely a key pillar to addressing this.”