Danielle Keats Citron’s Hate Crimes in Cyberspace is a book people need to read. Fair warning, though: after reading the book, there’s a good chance you may feel like taking a shower.
To begin, Citron notes that women are more likely to be attacked in cyberspace than men. For that reason, perhaps unsurprisingly, the book primarily looks at female victims. It might have been nice to have a slightly larger scope, but the women Citron focuses on all have stories that need to be told and stories that Internet users need to hear.
The hate crimes Citron describes are not single, isolated incidents. They are long-term assaults, and each is somewhat unique. One started with something many do every day: blog. In this case, the woman was a tech blogger. The hate started with graphic, often X-rated, comments and emails threatening beatings, rape, torture, and even murder: “Fuck off you boring slut… I hope someone slits your throat.”
Citron makes it easy to share the victims’ frustration and fear, particularly because, as she notes, threats of violence are often just the beginning. One anonymous poser can quickly turn into a cyber mob, and these cyber mobs want to do more than just post nasty threats in the comment sections of blogs. They want to ruin people’s lives. Citron shows that in addition to threats, these cyber trolls may contact the victims’ employers or post false information that will make it difficult for the victims to find employment. The cyber attackers may post addresses, phone numbers, even the social security numbers of their victims online. They may threaten the victims’ friends, family, or online followers.
Often, Citron relates, it’s unclear what motivates the attacks, and it can be difficult to identify the attackers. If victims complain, the abuse may grow worse; one victim was told “she was being a ‘silly girl’ and that this sort of roughhousing was an inevitable and harmless part of online life.” Many times, the victims are told it’s their own fault. Finally, police and law enforcement, Citron notes, aren’t always equipped to handle these types of cases.
Another type of cyber hate Citron discusses involves the posting of personal photographs. Most people are probably familiar with the celebrity phone hacking case from earlier this year. Citron doesn’t focus so much on hacking as she does unhappy exes looking to make their former girlfriends suffer by posting personal photos online, usually on revenge porn websites. Citron includes an interview with a revenge porn website operator who “explained that the more embarrassing and destructive the material, the more money he made. When a reporter told him that revenge porn had driven people to commit suicide, [the operator] said that he did not want anybody to die, but if it happened, he would be grateful for the publicity and advertising revenue it would generate.”
After the graphic content in the first chapters, it’s almost a relief to move into the chapters on law. Citron outlines the current laws, discusses their shortcomings, and makes detailed suggestions for improvement. She shows how victims have tried, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, to work within the legal system. But while this section of the book does suggest potential solutions, anyone with any Internet savvy is going to immediately see more problems. As Citron herself notes: “A legal agenda will take time. Cyber harassment and stalking, however, are problems with life-changing consequences for victims right now.”
Perhaps for this reason, chapter nine, entitled “Silicon Valley, Parents, and Schools”, seems to provide the most hope. In this chapter, Citron discusses what corporations, individuals and non-profits are doing now to stop hate crimes in cyberspace and to “help all of us, young, old, and in between, become responsible digital citizens.”
Some of the successes Citron notes include: 15 corporations, including Nissan, “threatened to pull their ads unless Facebook removed profiles that glorified or trivialized violence against women.” YouTube and other social media sites have clear policies about online abuse/cyber bullying and are finding creative ways of enforcing these policies, including using (as Wikipedia does) users as “norm enforcers”.
Citron outlines other areas of progress as well. Victims are fighting back in various ways, including starting support groups and filing civil suits. Organizations are stepping up and working to end cybercrime. Several states have banned or criminalized revenge porn. Most importantly, books like Hate Crimes in Cyberspace are bringing these crimes into the open and getting conversations started. We need to have these conversations—even, Citron notes, with young people.
At first glance, the book’s graphic language and content make it somewhat inappropriate for those who can’t yet legally see an R-rated movie. Here, however, one need only consider Australian writer Alanah Pearce’s experiences with boys threatening her with rape. These problems affect the pre-R-rated crowd just as much.
Obviously, we still have a long way to go, but there are steps that can be taken. Citron concludes, “We are on the path to protect cyber civil rights and eradicate online harassment. As digital citizens, we must finish this work together.”