Originally created 09/17/99

Report: Tougher online stalking laws needed



SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Federal and state laws should be strengthened to help curb the growing problem of online stalking, a U.S. Justice Department report recommends.

Two-thirds of states have no laws on the books that explicitly cover stalking on the Internet or through other electronic communications means, the report found. And federal law ought to be amended to make it easier to track down "cyberstalkers," it said.

"As more and more Americans are going online -- particularly our children -- it is critical that they are protected from online stalking," said Vice President Al Gore, who requested the report in February and was to release it in California on Thursday.

"Cyberspace should be a place for learning and exploration, not a place for fear," he said in remarks prepared for a meeting in San Diego with victims of online stalking and their family members.

The report surveyed steps that law enforcement, online industries, victims groups and others are taking to crack down on cyberstalking, and explored whether existing laws are adequate to combat a problem it contends is on the rise.

Internet service providers, which link users to e-mail and the World Wide Web, report a growing number of complaints about harassing and threatening behavior online, it said. The head of the sex crimes unit in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office reported that about 20 percent of the unit's cases involve cyberstalking.

It cited several chilling examples.

In one case, a Los Angeles security guard terrorized a woman who rejected his romantic advances by posting online messages that she fantasized about being raped, and listed her phone number and address.

On at least six occasions, sometimes in the middle of the night, men knocked on her door saying they wanted to rape her.

A San Diego man sent more than 100 e-mail messages to five female students at the University of San Diego and the University of California, San Diego last year. They included death threats, graphic sexual descriptions and references to the women's daily activities, prosecutors said.

Federal law enforcement officials have reported many cases in which pedophiles have made advances to children through online chat rooms and later made contact with the children, the report said.

Technology allows some stalkers to harass victims anonymously, it said.

The report recommends that all states review their laws to ensure they prohibit and provide "appropriate" punishment for stalking through the Internet and other means of electronic communication, including pagers.

California recently amended its stalking statute to cover cyberstalking.

Last year President Clinton signed a bill into law that protects children against online stalking. But the report said the law should be expanded to outlaw interstate or international communication made with the intent to threaten or harass another person.

Such new laws should include stiffer penalties when victims are minors, the report said. And federal law should make it easier for law enforcement to track down cyberstalkers.

The report cited as a hindrance the Cable Communications Policy Act, which bars investigators from obtaining cable subscriber records without a court order and advance notice to the subscriber.