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New Law On Cyberstalking

In October 1st, a new "cyberstalking" statute will take effect in Florida. "Cyberstalking" is an old issue that Florida is finally addressing and it's about time.

In a 1997 column, I wrote, "Cyberstalking is a new, high-tech version of an old terror, 'stalking.' It can take many forms including threatening, obscene or hateful e-mail, spreading vicious rumors about you online, and electronic sabotage like e-mail bombs (overwhelming your system with possibly thousands of e-mails). Protecting yourself against it is difficult since typically the behavior is not clearly illegal and the police often don't take the problem seriously. As a practical matter, I think that you might have better luck with the police if you reported aliens in your backyard."

That column went on to say that, "the best course for Florida and other states is to amend the laws to clarify that 'stalking' includes 'cyberstalking.'"

It may have taken six years, but in just a few days, my 1997 recommendation will become law.

The new law provides that to "'Cyberstalk' means to engage in a course of conduct to communicate, or to cause to be communicated, words, images, or language by or through the use of electronic mail or electronic communication, directed at a specific person, causing substantial emotional distress to that person and serving no legitimate purpose."

This new law also revises the crime of aggravated stalking to include not only placing a person in fear of their own death or bodily injury, but also now adds fear for the victim's child, sibling, spouse, parent or dependent.

The new law is even broad enough to cover more than just e-mail and the Internet. The statute's words are "through the use of electronic mail or electronic communication." "Electronic communication" can easily encompass things like cell phones, pagers and devices that we have yet to even dream about.

We can only hope that prosecutors and police will now begin to take this growing problem more seriously - and it is a real problem.

According to the sponsor of the Senate version of the cyberstalking statute, Florida State Senator Steven Geller (D-Hallandale Beach), "People, when they think of stalking, they think of somebody that's constantly calling, they think of someone that's following people. The [sic] don't realize the extent that you can cyberstalk in today's society. This is really widespread ... Katrina [a woman whose name and address was posted online as a supporter of terrorists, prompting a barrage of e-mails, letters and phone calls] is one of many people who have contacted us."

Corporate Cyberstalking

While cyberstalking is in many ways a personal, rather than a business problem, I would point out that it can affect your business. It turns out that the number of cases where company employees are stalking other company employees is on the rise. Cyberangels (www.cyberangels.com), which is an organization focused on cyberstalking, reports that it estimates that 25 percent of all stalking cases reported to their website involved stalking in the workplace.

If one of your employees reports being cyberstalked by another employee, you can't just ignore the problem. As much as you don't like it, it is your problem too.

Clearly, your company does not want the bad publicity associated with such a case. Worse, the threat of lawsuits flying is quite real. If you have this problem, you need to get your tech lawyer's assistance immediately before the issue blows up in your face.

Sometimes this corporate cyberstalking takes the form of an executive with a grudge. It might be a manager who diverts company assets and resources to stalking somebody, with your company as an unknowing accessory. Do you know how to spell "lawsuit?"

While relatively rare, the risk of liability if cyberstalking is happening in your company is high, so you must be on guard for this abuse of power and deal with it aggressively when it happens.

Prevention

There are steps you can take to reduce the risk of you being cyberstalked. It starts with a gender-neutral user name for your chat room visits and e-mail address. You might want to even consider a free e-mail account with Yahoo! or Hotmail for most of your online activity. It's easy to ignore or discard these addresses.

Don't fill out online profiles with AOL, Yahoo! or anyone. It's just begging to attract trouble.

You should also "Google" yourself. It's important to keep on top of what people might be saying about you online.

If you post a personal Web page, be careful. A strong case could be made that posting your picture and any kind of personal information about yourself is a path to a problem.

If you do have a cyberstalking problem, save every communication - even if they turn your stomach. You need it for the authorities to prosecute your case.

The law has come a long way since I first wrote about this issue in 1997. And, starting October 1, if you're a victim in Florida, you have a whole new law to protect you. Let's hope that it helps.





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