Earlier this week, Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark called other members of Congress to sign a letter with her that demands the FBI crack down on cyberstalking and online harassment.
Clark first became involved in this issue when she learned one of her constituents, Brianna Wu, was a victim of Gamergate. Last year, Wu, a Boston-based video game developer, received a series of death and rape threats after personal information, including her address, was published on 8chan, a message board site where users typically post anonymously. She had to flee her house and since has had to turn down various public-speaking engagements.
Clark reached out to Wu last fall, and this week began a public campaign calling the FBI to crack down on violent threats and harassment on the web. The congresswoman says laws are already on the books that give the agency jurisdiction in this arena, but they just aren’t being enforced.
Clark has published an op-ed in The Hill about sexism in cyberspace. She also has sent letters to her colleagues in Congress and to a House Appropriations subcommittee asking for this issue to be formally included in a report to the FBI.
Today Clark spoke to TechCrunch about her efforts to bring this issue to the attention of Congress.
TechCrunch: You met with the FBI to discuss Brianna’s threats in February. Could you tell me a little bit about that meeting?
Katherine Clark: We were frustrated by the response we received. We clearly got the message that online threats against women are not a priority. And that is why we’ve put together a letter to the Appropriations Committee asking the Department of Justice to intensify their investigations and prosecutions. We are not asking the federal government to police the Internet, but simply to enforce the laws that are already on the books.
TC: What did [the FBI representatives] say that showed you threats against women are not a priority?
KC: There are estimates that there are 2.5 million episodes of harassment and cyberstalking online every year. And yet the FBI says they have at any given time maybe 100 cases open, and only 10 have ever been prosecuted. The response is so disproportionate to the problem. And the threat not only to a woman’s personal safety, but we’re also seeing woman making real economic decisions based on harassment they’re facing online that are detrimental to them and to their family.
TC: What reason did the FBI give that so few of these cases have been prosecuted?
KC: I think for the FBI it really comes down, as well as I can understand it, to resources. And I think it’s just a matter of priorities. The FBI is part of our overall culture where we tend to view these threats not as very specific and damaging and frightening threats as they are, but somehow as harmless hoaxes that are very unlikely to actually happen.
When we see that women are feeling like they need to leave their own homes in order to ensure personal safety, that they are losing wages, canceling public appearances because of specific threats, this is more than just safety; this is an economic issue for many women. And as we see Internet commerce go, being on social media, having an online presence is a critical part of many careers and many jobs. It is not only threatening personally, but we’re seeing a real chilling effect on woman’s ability to speak out, especially if they are asserting a feminist opinion.
TC: Are there any personal reasons that this is a cause that’s so important to you?
KC: Like most public officials, I have received my fair share of comments online. And certainly since we started speaking out about this problem, that has grown dramatically over the past several days. It really is about speaking out. I know as an elected official, I will be able to get a response. But that should be open to every woman. We really need to make sure that we are enforcing the laws that are already on the books, to make sure that the Internet remains open to everyone.
TC: I know mostly what you’ve been calling for in your letter is to enforce laws already on the books, but are you calling for any allocation of resources to help the FBI with this problem and make it more of a priority?
KC: The way I’m looking at this is, let’s start with making this a priority. If there are specific resources that law enforcement needs, then we need to have those identified for us and step forward and help them. So far we’re really just trying to educate and raise awareness around this issue and give the Department of Justice a chance to say what are the barriers you’ve identified or is this simply a matter of not paying attention and not taking this as seriously as we think they should.
TC: What has the reaction been like to your decision to publicly take a position on this? What kind of feedback are you getting?
Well we’ve been hearing a lot of negative feedback from anonymous people on the Internet that we expected frankly. I can also tell you I’ve been getting a lot of private email from women around the country saying I’m so glad that someone is addressing this and this has really had an impact on my life. It is when we start to speak out as a collective voice that we’re going to change the culture around this and this should not be an acceptable form of harassment and threatening behavior. And it’s only when we band together and raise the profile of this issue that we’re going to change that.
TC: You sent a letter to your colleagues in Congress. I know you’re not in session right now, but have any of them responded to the letter or indicated that they’re interested in signing on?
KC: We do. We have an initial group and I’m sure next week when the House is back in session we’re really going to see those numbers jump up. [Note: Clark’s staff said the number of representatives who have signed on will not be available until next week.]
TC: I also saw you called on the chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee to include this language in a report. What would including language about intensifying the prosecution of harassment change?
KC: The request to the Appropriations Committee that we’re asking Congressional colleagues to sign onto our level and support is really a formal way of saying to the Department of Justice we take these issues of online threats and harassment seriously, and we want you to prioritize them as well. And we’ll see where this leads us. And if the FBI says it’s really about resources, then we’ll help them make the case to get the resources they need. But right now we just are trying to formally tell the Department of Justice that we think this is critical to women being able to use the Internet professionally and socially in a way that is available to them and should be their right under the First Amendment.
TC: If the FBI isn’t pursuing these threats, are there other avenues that victims can pursue to seek justice when they’re receiving such violent threats?
Many of the victims of violent threats have started with local law enforcement. Almost to a person, local law enforcement tried to be helpful but they didn’t have the tools to really be able to track down the source of these anonymous threats. That is where the FBI plays a critical role and that they have that ability to find out who the person is behind that anonymous posting.
TC: Is there anything else TechCrunch readers should know about this push?
KC: Gamergate brought this to our attention, but that’s just one sort of egregious example. But this really goes on everyday throughout the Internet, on social media platforms and websites. We really see this as a bigger issue that is affecting women in their personal safety and in their economic lives.