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Rep. Katherine Clark's crusade against the Internet's tormentors

Fighting for change

The congresswoman from Massachusetts has made stamping out online harassment one of her signature issues and as a result has felt the slings and arrows of the hordes of digital harassers.

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    Rep. Katherine Clark (D) of Massachusetts spoke during the press conference in Washington on June 10, 2015.
    Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP
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It was a late Sunday night in February and Katherine Clark's two teenage boys had turned in for the night. Clark and her husband, Rodney Dowell, were looking forward to relaxing. They'd just settled into an episode of "Veep" – one of their favorites – when Ms. Clark, a Democratic congresswoman from Massachusetts, noticed flashing blue-and-red lights outside her suburban Boston home. They hadn’t heard any sirens. Maybe a home alarm went off by mistake, they thought, or a neighbor was having a medical emergency?

Clark hurriedly stepped outside to investigate. That’s when her curiosity turned to panic. As she squinted through the floodlights, Clark saw police cruisers blocking off her street and an officer with a long gun drawn.

"Has there been some terrible incident in a neighbor's house, or is someone on the loose?" Clark remembered thinking. Then two officers walked up to her calmly. Just minutes earlier, they told her, a caller phoned police and reported an active shooter was inside Clark's home. Was everything OK, they asked.

Instantly, she knew what was going on. The call was bogus. Clark and her family had just become victims of "swatting," a kind of dangerous Internet-era harassment that she's been leading the fight against in the House of Representatives, where she was elected in 2013.

"For me, I quickly realized what was going on," Clark later told Passcode. "But there's that moment of walking outside and seeing that police presence, seeing guns out, that you just have that moment of fear for the security of your family and for your neighbors."

Swatting the swatters

Swatting is a dangerous stunt that involves calling local law enforcement with a false emergency designed to provoke a heavily armed police – possibly the SWAT team – response at a target's home. It has been on the rise since 2008, when the FBI first issued a warning about it. One of its best-known practitioners, Matthew Weigman, a blind 19-year-old hacker from East Boston, was sentenced in 2009 to 11 years in prison for conspiring in hundreds of swattings. And in 2013, a wave of swattings targeted celebrities such as Tom Cruise and Miley Cyrus.

The practice picked up steam last year as one of the tactics used in Gamergate, an organized harassment campaign against people calling for better representations of women in video games. It's just one part of an Internet subculture of threats, intimidation, stalking, and harassment that disproportionately targets women, minorities, or lesbians, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) people who are outspoken online.

Since 2014, Clark has made stamping out these kinds of online threats one of her signature issues, and she recently introduced legislation to make swatting a federal offense. As a result, the online hordes of harassers – typically anonymous individuals who thrive on vile comments and threatening taunts – turned on Clark with misogynistic tweets and e-mails. Then, they targeted her in a swatting attack. 

But Clark is unwavering in her conviction that addressing harassment is the only way to make the Internet truly open for everyone. "What people are missing is we are not talking about mean comments. We're not even talking about using vulgar language. We are talking about threats of rape, murder, dismemberment — really criminal activity," Clark said.

The issue of online harassment first came to Clark's attention through one of her constituents. In October 2014, Boston-based video game developer Brianna Wu became a target of Gamergate. Eventually, Ms. Wu received threats that were so extreme and specific that she and her family had to temporarily flee their home.

Clark's office reached out to Wu to see how the congresswoman could help. "As we started listening to her and asking how we could help, it became obvious that she had hit a dead end where she wasn't getting the type of response from law enforcement, and in particular the FBI, that we felt the threats against her warranted," Clark said.

Clark set up a meeting with the FBI. She said the agents told her these kinds of cybercrimes simply weren't an enforcement priority. She responded by penning an opinion piece in The Hill about how online harassment targets females at much higher rates. Clark also pushed for language in the House Appropriations Committee report on the Department of Justice's 2015 appropriations that pressed the department to "intensify its efforts to combat this destructive abuse."

Wu still receives so many online threats that she employs a full-time staff person to document them. When she attends industry events, she takes a security detail. That has an obvious emotional toll, but Wu says it’s also cut into her and her company’s bottom line.

Still, Wu says, Clark’s advocacy has made a real difference.

"I feel that our system of government is not really good at addressing the needs of constituents. But she is such a breath of fresh air," Wu told Passcode.

Online harassment and the law

Existing federal laws prohibit threats, stalking, and many of the other activities that fall under the umbrella of "online harassment." Congress even added a section on online harassment when it reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act in 2013. But federal law enforcement and prosecutors have been reluctant to pursue these cases, according to Clark.

Indeed, federal prosecutors only brought 10 cases under federal cyberstalking statutes between 2009 and 2012, according to Danielle Citron, a professor of law at the University of Maryland and author of the book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace.

It's too early to know if the House Appropriations Committee's report last year has had an impact on federal enforcement, according to Clark. In the meantime, she has introduced a bill that would provide the Department of Justice with additional training and resources for pursuing online harassment.

At last month's South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Clark also unveiled new legislation that would create grants through the Department of Justice to train local and state law enforcement, along with judges and prosecutors, in dealing with online harassment. The bill would also create a national clearinghouse for information and training. 

Legislation to increase penalties for swatting has been proposed in New Jersey, California, Utah, and Connecticut. And at least two lawmakers – Rep. Ted Lieu (D) of California and Democratic New Jersey Assemblyman Paul Moriarty – have been swatted after introducing legislation.

Local law enforcement usually want to help in cases of swatting and other online harassment, Clark said, but they often don't have the training or resources to act. That's especially true since these crimes often involve multiple jurisdictions. That makes it critical for federal law enforcement to take the lead, according to Clark.

"We're not asking anyone to set new laws against online behavior or threats, or criminalize new behavior," she said. "We're asking the Department of Justice to enforce the laws that are already on the books."

Currently, swatting doesn’t clearly fall under any one federal law. That's led to both undersentencing and oversentencing at the federal level, according to Clark. The legislation she introduced in December would make "false communications with the intent to cause an emergency response" a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. That penalty would jump to as much as 20 years if a swatting incident results in serious bodily harm, and life if it results in death.

All of Clark's major pieces of legislation aimed at online harassment are still in committee. It's a tough issues to get on people's radar in the middle of a presidential campaign and a Supreme Court vacancy. But lawmakers are supportive once they learn about the issue, Clark said. The congresswoman is also working directly with tech companies to improve how they address online harassment on their platforms. And getting swatted has only strengthened her resolve.

"It's important to use my position as a member of Congress to try to extend the protections that I have with this office to everyone," Clark said. "The Internet should remain open to everyone."

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