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4 FAQs about online harassment

Nearly four out of every 10 online users say they experience some form of online harassment, according to the Pew Research Center, and people in the 18-29 age range are most likely to be involved. With the issue becoming so common, many questions have arisen about online harassment, stalking and bullying.

Is online harassment illegal?

Yes, online harassment is illegal. Last year, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed a bill that grants judges the ability to issue a restraining order due to online harassment. The new law even applies to out-of-state offenders who target Wisconsin residents. Online harassment can be broken down into six types:

  • Name calling
  • Purposely embarrassing someone
  • Stalking
  • Physical threats
  • Sexual harassment
  • Harassment over a sustained period of time

Many people question all of the gray areas associated with this topic. Where are the lines drawn? The line between legal and illegal depends on the type of information shared or posted. Any public record (e.g. your full name, unsealed court records) can be shared legally. However, information that is not public record (i.e.. medical records, sealed court records, financial statements) may not legally be shared without permission.

Are there federal laws against online harassment?

Yes, there are federal laws in place to protect against online harassment and criminalize cyberstalking. These statutes include the Interstate Communications Act, the Telephone Harassment Act, the Interstate Stalking and Prevention Act, and a law that is focused solely on protecting children from solicitation for sexual activities.

What is the difference between cyberstalking and cyberharassment?

The terminology for describing online harassment has expanded in recent years - cyberstalking and cyberharassment are both used frequently. Cyberstalking refers to the act of gathering information about a person and closely monitoring him/her through websites, messaging services and texting. Cyberstalking typically precedes a physical crime. For example, a thief might stalk a victim and gain knowledge of vacation dates; when the victim is out of town, the thief then knows it's safe to vandalize the home.

On the other hand, cyberharassment refers to the offender shaming or embarrassing the victim. An embittered friend posting a drunken photo of the victim on the victim's work website would be considered cyberharassment. While traumatizing, cyberharassment usually does not precede a physical crime like cyberstalking does.

What if I'm accused of online harassment?

If someone accuses you of harassing, bullying or stalking them online, the first step you should take is to remove any and all harmful content, pictures, comments, etc. Once the content in question is removed, you should apologize to the other person and inform them that the content has been removed. However, do not engage the person if they accuse you of harassing or stalking them.

Despite your best intentions to make amends, sometimes issues are not resolved easily. Legal troubles can result, especially if you are accused of cyberstalking. An attorney experienced in online harassment cases can help you navigate through the legal proceedings.

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