Written by Gregg Brekke
United Church of Christ justice advocates have joined with the National Council of Churches and a growing list of religious and advocacy organizations calling for the tightening of laws to prevent Internet stalking.
One effort to accomplish that, the organizations said in a letter sent to U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), is the Internet Abuse Act of 2011 introduced by Blumenthal late last year.
"With the Internet and social networking we are in new and uncharted territory with regard to violence prevention – cyber-intimidation and abuse goes beyond the bounds of free expression and needs to be identified as such," said Sandy Sorenson, director of the UCC's Washington, D.C., office.
"This legislation is important because it provides needed guidelines to prosecutors who are attempting to successfully charge criminals who use the Internet as a means of stalking, sexual and domestic abuse," said Loey Powell, the UCC's executive for administration and women's justice.
Noting the difficulty of delineating what is criminal or unacceptable in term of Internet use, Powell is hopeful the new legislation will begin to provide those guidelines. "The Internet Abuse Act will help shape federal law in appropriate ways and support those victimized by sexual or domestic abuse."
Blumenthal said he introduced the legislation as a companion to a bill to renew the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) by preventing use of the Internet to stalk women as targets of sexual assault.
According to Blumenthal, the act is intended to "empower law enforcement and protect victims from criminals who use the Internet to intimidate, threaten, or injure them."
In the letter sent to Blumenthal, advocacy organizations said there are many gaps in existing law.
"While cases where a criminal directly stalks, assaults, or abuses a victim can generally be reached under current law, it can be more difficult for prosecutors to make cases against perpetrators who indirectly abuse victims by using the Internet to induce third party individuals into engaging in such conduct."
Current federal law criminalizes anonymous, harassing communications directed at a specific victim but does not currently cover harassing communications that may not be directly received by a victim. This Internet Abuse Act would fill this gap.
The bill also protects free speech by preventing prosecutions based solely on a communications that merely "annoy" a recipient.