What is cyber harassment and how can you protect yourself?

Harassment is defined as “a feeling of intense annoyance caused by being tormented”. Often we forget that this definition can be applied to situations in a digital realm. When harassment occurs in a digital realm (online or virtually) it is called cyber harassment. With social media participation on the rise, unfortunately more and more people have at some point experienced cyber harassment. It is important to remember that both harassment and cyber harassment are unlawful and you may have the right to pursue a claim against a cyber-harasser.

What is considered cyber harassment?

Posting harassing images, participating in inappropriate “trolling”, contributing to hate sites, unwanted posting of another’s personal information (addresses, phone numbers, or explicative photos), impersonating someone else, and making threatening or degrading statements may all be considered harassment. Depending on the severity of harassment, the actions of the aggressor may be considered criminal. Having someone rate down your Xbox LIVE account because they do not like your gamer skills is not considered harassment. An example of cyberharassment would be an ex-significant other sending explicative photos of you to your workplace, negatively affecting your reputation.

How can you protect yourself from cyber harassment?

Cyber harassment cannot necessarily be prevented but if you have been a victim of cyber harassment the first step you can take to take control of the situation is to let the aggressor (if you know their identity) know that their contact or actions are unwanted and inappropriate. If you have been threatened with violence, report the harassment to your local police authorities so they can investigate the threats. While the alleged harassment may be embarrassing, it is important to document what information was posted and where it was posted online. Most importantly, it is a good idea to seek legal counsel to determine whether or not you may be able to pursue a claim.

Cyber Harassment Laws

RCW 9A.46.020 Definition — Penalties.

(1) A person is guilty of harassment if: (a) Without lawful authority, the person knowingly threatens: (i) To cause bodily injury immediately or in the future to the person threatened or to any other person; or (ii) To cause physical damage to the property of a person other than the actor; or (iii) To subject the person threatened or any other person to physical confinement or restraint; or (iv) Maliciously to do any other act which is intended to substantially harm the person threatened or another with respect to his or her physical or mental health or safety; and (b) The person by words or conduct places the person threatened in reasonable fear that the threat will be carried out. “Words or conduct” includes, in addition to any other form of communication or conduct, the sending of an electronic communication. (2)(a) Except as provided in (b) of this subsection, a person who harasses another is guilty of a gross misdemeanor. (b) A person who harasses another is guilty of a class C felony if any of the following apply: (i) The person has previously been convicted in this or any other state of any crime of harassment, as defined in RCW 9A.46.060, of the same victim or members of the victim’s family or household or any person specifically named in a no-contact or no-harassment order; (ii) the person harasses another person under subsection (1)(a)(i) of this section by threatening to kill the person threatened or any other person; (iii) the person harasses a criminal justice participant who is performing his or her official duties at the time the threat is made; or (iv) the person harasses a criminal justice participant because of an action taken or decision made by the criminal justice participant during the performance of his or her official duties. For the purposes of (b)(iii) and (iv) of this subsection, the fear from the threat must be a fear that a reasonable criminal justice participant would have under all the circumstances. Threatening words do not constitute harassment if it is apparent to the criminal justice participant that the person does not have the present and future ability to carry out the threat. (3) Any criminal justice participant who is a target for threats or harassment prohibited under subsection (2)(b)(iii) or (iv) of this section, and any family members residing with him or her, shall be eligible for the address confidentiality program created under RCW 40.24.030. (4) For purposes of this section, a criminal justice participant includes any (a) federal, state, or local law enforcement agency employee; (b) federal, state, or local prosecuting attorney or deputy prosecuting attorney; (c) staff member of any adult corrections institution or local adult detention facility; (d) staff member of any juvenile corrections institution or local juvenile detention facility; (e) community corrections officer, probation, or parole officer; (f) member of the indeterminate sentence review board; (g) advocate from a crime victim/witness program; or (h) defense attorney. (5) The penalties provided in this section for harassment do not preclude the victim from seeking any other remedy otherwise available under law. [2011 c 64 § 1; 2003 c 53 § 69; 1999 c 27 § 2; 1997 c 105 § 1; 1992 c 186 § 2; 1985 c 288 § 2.] NOTES: Intent — Effective date — 2003 c 53: See notes following RCW 2.48.180. Intent — 1999 c 27: “It is the intent of chapter 27, Laws of 1999 to clarify that electronic communications are included in the types of conduct and actions that can constitute the crimes of harassment and stalking. It is not the intent of the legislature, by adoption of chapter 27, Laws of 1999, to restrict in any way the types of conduct or actions that can constitute harassment or stalking.” [1999 c 27 § 1.] Severability — 1992 c 186: See note following RCW 9A.46.110.

RCW 10.14.020 Definitions.

Unless the context clearly requires otherwise, the definitions in this section apply throughout this chapter. (1) “Course of conduct” means a pattern of conduct composed of a series of acts over a period of time, however short, evidencing a continuity of purpose. “Course of conduct” includes, in addition to any other form of communication, contact, or conduct, the sending of an electronic communication, but does not include constitutionally protected free speech. Constitutionally protected activity is not included within the meaning of “course of conduct.” (2) “Unlawful harassment” means a knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific person which seriously alarms, annoys, harasses, or is detrimental to such person, and which serves no legitimate or lawful purpose. The course of conduct shall be such as would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress, and shall actually cause substantial emotional distress to the petitioner, or, when the course of conduct would cause a reasonable parent to fear for the well-being of their child. [2011 c 307 § 2; 2001 c 260 § 2; 1999 c 27 § 4; 1995 c 127 § 1; 1987 c 280 § 2.]NOTES: Reviser’s note: The definitions in this section have been alphabetized pursuant to RCW 1.08.015(2)(k). Findings — Intent — 2001 c 260: “The legislature finds that unlawful harassment directed at a child by a person under the age of eighteen is not acceptable and can have serious consequences. The legislature further finds that some interactions between minors, such as “schoolyard scuffles,” though not to be condoned, may not rise to the level of unlawful harassment. It is the intent of the legislature that a protection order sought by the parent or guardian of a child as provided for in this chapter be available only when the alleged behavior of the person under the age of eighteen to be restrained rises to the level set forth in chapter 10.14 RCW.” [2001 c 260 § 1.] Intent — 1999 c 27: vSee note following RCW 9A.46.020.