Every day, millions of Americans use the internet to enrich their lives, engage with their communities, and do their jobs. While most online interactions are positive, the sad reality is that for far too many Americans, having an online presence means being subjected to harassment, stalking, and even sexual abuse. In recent years, the internet has become an easy way for abusers to stalk victims of domestic violence and prey on vulnerable children.
According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 20% of adult internet users have been affected by cyberstalking, persistent harassing e-mails, or other unwanted online contact. For far too many Americans, the online harassment is extreme, including abuse like ‘sextortion,’ ‘swatting,’ or ‘doxxing.’ Women are targeted with sexually explicit messages and threats 27 times more than men. And for women of color and LGBT women, the rate is even higher.
One increasingly common form of online abuse involves perpetrators threatening to expose private or sensitive material, often including nude images, unless victims produce sexual materials, engage in sexual activity, or pay the abuser money. The Department of Justice recently declared this form of online sexual exploitation, known as ‘sextortion,’ to be “by far the most significantly growing threat to children.” From self-mutilation to suicide, the consequences of sextortion for traumatized victims can be devastating. According to a 2015 FBI analysis of 43 sextortion cases involving child victims, at least two victims committed suicide and at least 10 more attempted suicide. In addition, a growing number of abusers use ‘swatting’ attacks, where they report fake emergency situations in an attempt to provoke an emergency law enforcement response aimed at frightening their victims, causing property damage, or physical harm. While some attacks have been reported to cost local law enforcement agencies as much as $100,000, the most serious cost of these attacks is the danger they pose to emergency responders, innocent victims, and their families. Other abusers ‘dox’ their victims by publishing their personally identifiable information with the intent to subject them to the constant fear of being attacked everywhere they go— online, on their cellphones, at work, and in their homes.
That's why I introduced the Online Safety Modernization Act that will update the federal code to address these crimes that are happening every day online. We also need to hold companies accountable for facilitating online crimes through a lack of policies, policing, and transparency. By drawing attention to these issues, we are protecting the safety of online users.