Know the Laws:
UPDATED January 11, 2017
Below we discuss various ways that an abuser can commit abuse using technology, including cyberstalking, sexting, electronic surveillance, abuse involving nude/sexual images, impersonation and online harassment.
Online harassment is abusive behavior that happens online (through email, messaging, social media, dating sites, and other platforms). Abusers who commit online harassment often do it to make you feel unsafe, humiliated, scared, or emotionally distressed. They may be trying to publicly embarrass, sexually harass, threaten, dox, bully, offend, or otherwise harass you. In a relationship where domestic violence or stalking is present, the abusive person may do these things to maintain power and control over you. Depending on the abuser’s behavior, there may be laws in your state to protect you.
See the following sections to learn more about online harassment and laws that may protect you. You can also visit our Crimes page in your state to read your state laws related to harassment.
Online harassment and online stalking (cyberstalking) resemble each other and often happen at the same time, but the laws covering each behavior may differ.
Cyberstalking laws usually require proof that the abuser’s harassing behaviors made you feel scared that you or someone else was in immediate physical danger, and that the abuser knew his/her actions would make you feel that way. Cyberstalking laws also usually require proof that the abuser engaged in a “course of conduct” (more than one incident).
Online harassment laws may cover a broader degree of abusive behavior. Many online harassment laws can cover just one incident and may not require proof that the abuser knew or should have known his/her actions would cause you fear. However, some online harassment laws may require you to prove that the abuser meant to annoy or alarm you (or should have known his/her actions would annoy or alarm you), and/or that the abuser had “no legitimate purpose” for his/her actions. To see how your state defines harassment, you can read the language of the law on our Crimes page. Note: Not every state has a crime called “harassment,” but on WomensLaw.org we list similar crimes found in each state.
There are many ways an abuser can misuse technology to harass you. Below, we define some of these abusive behaviors and describe the criminal laws that might address them. You may also be eligible for a restraining order in your state if you are a victim of harassment. See the Restraining Orders page in your state to learn more.
Harassment is when someone contacts you or does something to you that makes you feel annoyed or frightened. Some states require that the abuser contact you repeatedly, but some laws cover one harassing incident. Also, some states address harassing behavior in their stalking laws, but other states may also have a separate harassment law. See How does online harassment differ from online stalking (cyberstalking)? to learn how online harassment differs from online stalking. To read the specific language of laws that apply to harassment in your state, go to our Crimes page. Note: Not every state has a crime called “harassment,” but on WomensLaw.org we list similar crimes found in each state.
A threat is when someone has communicated (through words or images) that they plan to cause you or someone else harm, or that they plan to commit a crime against you or someone else. Some examples include threats to kill, physically or sexually assault, or kidnap you or your child. Threats can also include threatening to commit suicide. Many states’ criminal threat laws don’t specifically talk about the use of technology, they just require that the threat be communicated in some way (which could include in person, by phone, or using text messages, email, messaging apps, or social media). Online threats don’t necessarily have to include words – a picture posted on your Facebook page of the abuser holding a gun could be considered a threat.
Doxing is when someone searches for and publishes your private/identifying information online in an effort to scare, humiliate, physically harm, or blackmail you (among other reasons). The information they post could include your name, address, phone number, email address, photos, finances, or your family members’ names, among other things. An abuser may already know this information about you or s/he might look for your information online through search engines or social media sites. Abusers may also get information about you by hacking into devices or accounts. Sometimes they may even reach out to your friends or family members pretending to be you or a friend of yours so that they can get more information about you. The abusive person may publish your personal information online in an effort to scare, humiliate, physically harm, or blackmail you (among other reasons).
Doxing is a common tactic of online harassers, and an abuser may use the information s/he learns through doxing to pretend to be you and ask for others to harass or assault you. See our Impersonation page to learn more about this form of abuse. There may not be a law in your state that specifically identifies doxing as a crime, but this behavior may fall under your state’s stalking, harassment, or criminal threat laws.
Cyberbullying is unwanted and often aggressive behavior targeted at a specific person that takes place through the use of technology devices and electronic communication methods. A cyberbully may use a phone to repeatedly send offensive, insulting, hurtful or threatening text messages to you, or may use social media to post rumors or share personal information about you. Not all states have cyberbullying laws, and many of the states that do have them specify that they only apply to students or minors (since “bullying” typically takes place among children and teens). Additionally, not all states criminalize cyberbullying but instead may require that schools have policies in place to address all forms of bullying among students. If you are experiencing cyberbullying and your state doesn’t have a cyberbullying law, it’s possible that the abuser’s behavior is prohibited under your state’s stalking or harassment laws (additionally, even if your state does have a cyberbullying law, your state’s stalking or harassment laws may also protect you).
If you’re a student experiencing online abuse by someone who you are or were dating and your state’s domestic abuse, stalking, or harassment laws don’t cover the specific abuse you’re experiencing, you may want to see if your state has a cyberbullying law that could apply. For example, if an abuser is sharing an intimate image of you without your consent and your state doesn’t have a sexting or nonconsensual image sharing law, you can check to see if your state has a cyberbullying law or policy that bans the behavior.
If you are the victim of online harassment, it is generally a good idea to keep track of any contact a harasser has with you. You can find more information about documenting technology abuse on our Stalking/Cyberstalking page. You may also be able to change the settings of your online profiles to prohibit an abuser from using certain threatening phrases or words. You can learn more about these protections on Safety Net's Tech Safety blog. You can also find legal resources in your state on our Finding a Lawyer page.