Cyberstalking: moving to criminalize the practice that destroys lives
Only a handful of countries have legislation on cyberstalking – Australia, India, the UK, and Poland, as well as a few US states - even though it is becoming a common crime on the internet, with severe consequences in real life.
In the UK, the Malicious Communications Act 1998 classifies cyberstalking as a crime, and in Australia, the Stalking Amendment Act of 1999 includes the use of any form of technology for the purpose of harassing a particular victim.
In the US, explains Alexsander Carvalho, a lawyer expert in digital law, the first such law was introduced in 1999 in California, and soon other states added definitions of cyberstalking to their legislation. There is also the federal anti-cyberstalking law, known as the Violence Against Women Act.
“Each with its own characteristics, several US states have included prohibitions of harassment by electronic communications, computer or email in their anti-harassment legislation,”says Carvalho.
Soon, others followed suit.
Brazil is now one of the countries that recognize this problem. Stalking, or rather “the persecution of someone, repeatedly and by any means,” became a crime in Brazil on April 1, 2021, with the publication of a new law, with a penalty of 6 to 24 months in prison and a fine.
What is cyberstalking?
Stalking, explains Carvalho, “is a form of cyberbullying, a crime against honor committed in a virtual environment, while cyberstalking is a crime of threat, which may be reflected in the criminal misdemeanor law due to the disturbance of tranquility it promotes.”
In other words, cyberstalking is the insistent persecution and threats made against someone that, says Tulio Vianna, criminal lawyer and law professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais “usually causes serious psychological damage to its victims and must be combated in an appropriate manner.”
Imagine having someone who, for example, claims to be your admirer and tries to have a conversation with you on any social media. Suddenly, they start showing up at the same places you go, sending you messages on all of your social media, even finding out your phone number and texting you – and even your relatives and friends.
This person might not even make a discernible threat. However, the insistence, the invasiveness, and the refusal to hear "no" make the practice extremely harmful to the victim and, in some countries, a crime.
Legislation and consequences
The practice is becoming commonplace around the world, mainly through social networks. Therefore, there’s a need for specific legislation, some experts say.
For Carvalho, “if we analyze its results and the psychological consequences of cyberbullying and cyberstalking, they will always be an individual’s worst nightmare in an increasingly hyperconnected age, and sometimes these culminate in the death of the victim.”
“I believe that yes, we have a duty to combat this unconscionable primitivism in the information age with all the legal weapons the state has at its disposal,” he adds.
Can you imagine the despair of the victim?
Examples of people denouncing victims of such crime are quite common on the internet – and women are often the target of hate, bullying, and stalking online.
Laura*, a 35-year-old woman, told CyberNews that she noticed that someone had created several fake social media accounts to send her uncomfortable messages. She later found out it was a man she met once after matching on Tinder. He started showing up in the same places she was, leading her to delete all of her accounts for fear he might try something more than just “casually showing up,” she said.
On Twitter, content creator and Twitch streamer Haru Jiggly shared the “terrible situations regarding stalkers and personal data” that she has been facing for years.
She says she got messages from "many [phone] numbers, [from] many social network accounts, to a level that I couldn't block. WhatsApp, Face[book], Insta[gram], SMS, Telegram, messages to my relatives, even relatives I didn't know. He lied, asked for more information about me, pretended to be my friend, called everyone.”
This person, whom Haru did not identify, made her consider dropping out of college for the mental damage that cyberstalking was causing her. She was receiving messages from the stalker about her whereabouts, pictures of her home and workplace. In the end, she found it extremely difficult to report him to the police or to sue him.
After four years of trying to report her cyberstalker, Haru was sentenced to a derisory fine, forcing her to live in fear.
Her story is similar to thousands of others. Therefore, creating specific legislation is not only welcomed, but necessary. Carvalho says that "preserving the citizen's ‘privacy’ in the digital environment is an obligation of the State," and such legislation is an “evolution.”
Vianna agrees. For him, previous legislation ended up treating the practice as a minor crime, like “defamation or a simple isolated threat.”
Freedom of expression?
Not everyone is happy with the new legislation, however. Criminal lawyer Tulio Duarte says that the new legislation “was unnecessary, since the new law did not bring great innovation in terms of criminalization, as it was already possible to frame a certain person within the crime of threat.”
Duarte believes that there is a danger that the new law will criminalize behavior that may be uncomfortable, but not necessarily threatening. This is true for Brazil, as well as for other countries.
“Criminal law should only be used as a last resort. In the case of cyberstalking, I see that such criminalization was only a legislative answer to society and that it will not solve the problem. Instead of creating a new criminal type, sometimes investing in specialized police stations would be more interesting,” he said.
How to protect yourself from cyberstalking?
In any case, there are a few things one can do to prevent being the target of a cyberstalker, such as keeping a low profile online, hiding your IP address, never posting any personal and sensitive information on social media (such as address and phone number), keeping most of your profiles private and never allowing strangers to have access to your private posts and messages, etc.
“The only way to protect yourself from cyberstalking is to select who you add on social media, avoid further exposure and, as a last resort, when the person is already known, seek help from the specialized police stations,” says Duarte.
But we all know how hard it is not to expose any data online, and often stalkers are skilled enough to find gaps in your protective measures and gather enough data to make your life difficult.
There are a few important things to have in mind if you become a victim of a cyberstalker, such as not engaging - not giving the person any power over you or the feeling that they have you under control.
Also, it’s important to document everything. Take screenshots of any profile that looks off, of every message sent to you and also if the online stalking escalates to offline stalking, try as much as possible to keep a log of any suspicious activity, of anyone near your location who was not supposed to be there, etc. People who are stalked often end up becoming paranoid, so it is better to use it against the stalker.
Alerting friends and relatives is also an important step – stalkers often use them to get to you, also spreading lies and fabricating stories. And, in the end, the police must be notified - as they are the ones capable of properly dealing with the situation – and lawsuits and restraining orders can also be requested.
In Brazil, just a few days after the law against stalking came into effect, a 39-year-old man was arrested in the state of Paraná. He is accused of threatening to leak intimate photos of a 26-year-old woman with whom he had contact online - he blackmailed her to get sex.
*Laura is a fake name, as the victim preferred not to identify herself.
About the author: Raphael Tsavkko Garcia is a Brazilian freelance journalist published by Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, Undark, The Washington Post, among other news outlets. He also holds a PhD in Human Rights from the University of Deusto.