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.”

Johnstone agrees, saying that sexual harassment itself has not changed, just the methodology being used. A two-year-old study by the National Network to End Domestic Violence found that 97 percent of victims who seek its services say they had been harassed by someone misusing technology. Harassment via texting was the favored tactic with 96 percent of the victims surveyed for its Safety Net Technology Safety Survey, with social media counts coming in second with 86 percent of the respondents saying this medium was used as a harassment tool. 

Facebook is by far the most used social media site for online attacks with almost all of the victims saying it was used by their tormentor, while Twitter and Instagram were distant second and third place finishers.

But there is nothing comical about what is taking place with Gamersgate or when women are shunned in the industry. In fact, whether it is done intentionally or not, making it difficult for women to enter the internet security workforce is not only poor behavior, but bad for business.

“There is an economic cost,” Franks (left) says. “Harassment affects people's ability to work and this costs companies money.”

One of the few ways to change this situation is to alter the equation. In this case, add more women to the field through hiring and education. The need for this is obvious as the number of women in security-related jobs has increased slowly, at least as a percent of the overall security community.

A Frost & Sullivan study, “Women in Security,” found about 20 percent of the information security workforce is comprised of women, up from 11 percent in 2013. Placing even this single-digit uptick aside, women are still under-represented in several job categories.

In addition to increasing the male-female ratio in the information security sector, helping to curb sexual harassment is the implementation of legal guidelines. Several members of Congress are actively pushing through legislation that addresses harassment.

Clark has worked tirelessly on the Hill to make online sexual harassment a priority for law enforcement and to shine a brighter light on the issue. This includes introducing legislation, such as H.R. 4740, Cybercrime Enforcement Training Assistance Act of 2016, and Prioritizing Online Threats Enforcement Act. The first bill would “direct the Attorney General to make grants to States and units of local government for the prevention, enforcement, and prosecution of cybercrimes against individuals, and for other purposes.” The latter bill will compel the Department of Justice to enforce laws prohibiting online violence against women and to ensure protections for victims of severe online threats.

“Before any bill can become law, Congress has to have a robust debate with one another and a deliberative dialogue with their constituents,” says Clark. “That's why the work of the online safety community is so important. They facilitate this critical discussion in our home districts while I find partners in Congress to get these proposals to the President's desk.”

However, experts say even more can be done by the government. The Brookings Institute Center for Technology Innovation just released a study entitled “Sextortion: Cybersecurity, teenagers and remote sexual assault,” that recommended that federal and state lawmakers should consider adopting sextortion statutes that addresses the specific conduct at issue in sextortion cases and does not treat the age of the victim as a core element of the offense. 

In addition to the laws being passed and corporations taking responsibility for what takes place on their websites, Johnstone notes other positive changes. There are now constant discussions between corporations, academia and the legal field on the topic, which did not happen before, she says. 

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