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How is cyberstalking defined?

Many people in Milwaukee use the Internet to share how they feel through images or opinions that may or may not get the attention and support of other users. It is not an Internet crime to express yourself provided your intent is not to cause emotional or physical harm to someone else.

It’s likely you are more aware of the forbidden behaviors associated with the familiar crime of stalking than its digital cousin cyberstalking. The two are similar. However, the Internet version can be a little vague in definition, depending upon your interpretation of what the term means.

The Wisconsin law dealing with cyberstalking doesn’t even refer to the word directly. Instead, the misdemeanor crime is called the unlawful use of computerized communication systems. In short, it is illegal to use electronic mail or other computerized communications to send a message for the purpose of harassing, intimidating, abusing, threatening or frightening someone else.

The gray area is how victims, defendants, laws and judges draw the emotional lines about online communications. Prosecutors must show a threat by an alleged cyberstalker is credible – real and possible. Computer hacking, the spread of private or reputation-damaging false information, the use of spyware or viruses and identity theft are used as tools to harass or bully.

The Internet’s news and social media websites make it easy for anonymous users to criticize and comment, but focusing in on a specific target repeatedly can cause backlash. A court would want to know what harm was done or threatened before judging a cyberstalking defendant. Proof of intentionally harmful electronic behaviors is vital and often elusive for prosecutors.

A 2009 federal study estimated more than 5 million adults in the U.S. had been victims of online harassment or cyberstalking during the previous year. All states have laws addressing online abuse, but many don’t have police officers sufficiently trained to enforce them.

Source: National White Collar Crime Center, “Cyberstalking,” accessed May. 22, 2015

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