That '70s show: Sexual harassment

That '70s show: Sexual harassment
That '70s show: Sexual harassment

New legislation and evolving corporate policies are fighting back against online harassment, reports Doug Olenick.

Sadly, what's old is new again when it comes to sexual harassment, both in the job marketplace and online. The type of harassment being seen online is now reminiscent of what was common practice 40 years ago, though there are some encouraging signs in the number of laws being passed to control and limit what can only be described as, and not to insult our ancestors, Neanderthal-like behavior. 

While sexual harassment claims continue to rise and women still express their concerns over the environment in the male-dominated internetma security industry, several positive steps have been taken during the last year. This includes more states adopting laws to fight the nonconsensual distribution of sexually explicit images, or so-called revenge porn. New federal legislation will give more money and power to law enforcement to deal with sexual harassment claims. Efforts also are being made on the educational front to entice more women into the information security field.

“It is very encouraging,” says Mary Anne Franks, professor of law at the University of Miami School of Law, and legislative and tech policy director at the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. “We saw some real changes last year when all the major players – Google, Twitter, Facebook – came out saying they will not allow non-consensual postings.”

Franks points out that 34 states now have revenge porn laws on the books with more lined up to follow suit. Another change taking place, she adds, is a general acknowledgement now of the problem, with more people realizing women should not have to put up with this toxicity.

Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) points to several factors in government, the private sector and the legal community that have come into play during the past year and which she says gave her reason to feel positive that steps forward are being taken. “The most encouraging progress we've seen has to do with targets of online abuse taking a stand and speaking up against the kinds of abuse and severe online threats that are disproportionately leveled at women, people of color and LGBT people,” Clark says. “They've empowered advocates, lawmakers, the criminal justice community, and developers to come together and find a full spectrum of approaches to dealing with online abuse.”

Erica Johnstone is a partner in the legal firm Ridder, Costa & Johnstone, where she specializes in representing people who have been harmed through the use of technology, including revenge porn. She is also encouraged by the progress being made. “We are heading in the right direction,” she says. “Through the works of activists and through telling the stories of the victims, we are starting to understand the toll being taken on these women.” 

Clark points to a win for the cause that took place in 2015 when legislation was passed allocating more funds for the investigation and prosecution of online attacks. “We earned an early victory last year when the U.S. House – through its criminal justice spending bill – instructed the Department of Justice to increase the investigation and prosecution of online threats,” Clark says. “This was an important step toward getting support for our bills – bills that ensure the DoJ and our local communities get the resources they need to make this happen.”

Another such victory came in April when a Massachusetts Appeals Court dismissed a First Amendment case associated with the infamous Gamergate scandal that has rocked the video gaming world over the last few years. The court refused to rule on whether an abuse prevention order filed against Eron Gjoni violated his right to free speech because it halted him from posting negative statements about his ex-girlfriend Zoe Quinn. 

Franks calls Gamergate a throwback example of what happens when a woman enters a male-dominated field. In this case, the online gaming industry. This is similar to what happened in the 1970s, Franks says, when men would essentially create a modern day version of the “He-Man Women Haters Club” of Little Rascal's fame. “This is what happens when men feel they own an industry.”

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