House subcommittee hears testimony on cyberstalking

Friday, October 1, 1999

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime heard testimony this week about the need for federal protection from the growing problem of cyberstalking.

At the Sept. 29 hearing, the subcommittee discussed a bill introduced last May by Rep. Sue Kelly, R – N.Y., called the Stalking Prevention and Victim Protection Act of 1999.

The bill would broaden the federal definition of stalking to include interstate commerce, which would enable law enforcement officials to go after stalkers who use e-mail, telephone, or other modes of interstate communication to harass their victims.

The Interstate Stalking Act, which was signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, criminalizes the crossing of state lines with the intent to injure or harass another person and place them in reasonable fear of death or bodily injury.

That law requires stalkers to physically cross state lines and thus provides little help in the fight against cyberstalking.

Rep. Bill McCollum, R – Fla., chairman of the crime subcommittee, said that “current language requiring intent to cause death or serious bodily injury creates a serious loophole for stalkers who have not demonstrated specific threats but have demonstrated threatening behavior that causes real fear in their victims.”

Kelly's bill would provide that someone could be charged with stalking if they on two or more occasions engaged “in any conduct that results in the individual's reasonable fear of death or bodily injury … and [the individual] knows or has reasonable cause to believe that such conduct results in that fear.”

David Beatty, director of public policy for the National Center for Victims of Crime, testified that the new standard in this bill — the “knows or has reasonable cause to believe” standard — will make prosecution of stalkers “more practical” and “possible.”

The subcommittee also heard testimony from Jayne Hitchcock, a victim of interstate cyberstalking. “I urge you to pass this bill … because cyberstalking is something I wouldn't wish on anyone,” she said. “Since most incidents happen in different states, a federal law will help law enforcement prosecute the offender who crosses state lines.”

Beatty cited a recent report from Attorney General Janet Reno estimating that there are at least tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of cyberstalking incidents in the United States.

The report — Cyberstalking: A New Challenge for Law Enforcement and Industry — says cyberstalking is “a serious and growing problem.”

The report says that federal law should be “amended to prohibit the transmission of any communication in interstate or foreign commerce with intent to threaten or harass another person, where such communication places another person in fear of death or bodily injury to themselves or another person.”

The report mentions that one of the biggest obstacles facing law enforcement officials in battling cyberstalking is the “challenge of anonymity” prevalent on the Internet.

“Anonymity on the Internet protects both privacy and free speech, ” David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said. “Anonymity is considered one of the key features of the Internet that needs to be preserved.

“The U.S. Supreme Court in McIntyre (the 1995 case of McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission) recognized a First Amendment right to speak anonymously and even noted that while anonymity can be abused, the benefits far outweigh the potential problems,” he said.

Sobel says that no one really questions the need to protect people from real threats but “the question becomes whether the need to do that really warrants redesigning the architecture of the Internet to ensure the identification of all users.

“The question becomes whether the damage to free speech and privacy is justified in an attempt to prevent a few abuses.”

The attorney general's report acknowledges that “care must be taken in drafting cyberstalking statutes to ensure that they are not so broad that they risk chilling constitutionally protected speech, such as political protest and other legitimate conduct.”

Hitchcock sees no constitutional problems with cyberstalking laws, including the Stalking Prevention and Victim Protection Act of 1999. “This is not a matter of free speech or a violation of the First Amendment. Harassment is harassment, period,” she said. “Stalking is stalking, and cyberstalking needs to be made a federal crime before it gets out of hand and someone is murdered.”