social media


At least there’s some legal recourse for sticks and stones. Words—at least when it comes to cyber harassment—might pose a more difficult challenge.

Last week, Illinois tweaked its stalking law to specifically include messages sent over social media, allowing businesses, schools and places of worship to ask for a restraining order in the face of online harassment. The move potentially gives the state’s beleaguered Internet denizens a leg up over those in North Carolina, where a similar stalking law prohibits stalking by electronic messaging but does not mention the phrase “social media.”

It might sound like a distinction without a difference, but with federal laws shielding social media platforms from liability for third party posts, a series of updated and highly specific state laws might be a victim’s best chance at gaining relief or protection.

Ed McAndrew, co-practice leader of the Privacy and Data Security Group at Ballard Spahr, thinks laws like the one in Illinois could at least help clear up any jurisdictional issues states might encounter with regards to cyber harassment. He said while most states do typically have some kind of cyber harassment laws, local police aren’t aware that they exist.

“These changes make clearer that technology-facilitated harassment of this type is a violation of the state laws. I think that will hopefully encourage people to come forward,” McAndrew said.

If they do, it probably should not be with hopes for a big win over one of America’s towering social media giants. Last year, Matthew Herrick of New York City sued Grindr, alleging that the app is a flawed product that allowed his ex-boyfriend to impersonate him and send strangers to his home and workplace. A court in the Southern District of New York tossed the case out on the basis of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which holds that platforms are not liable  for content created by their users.

According to NBC News, the case is scheduled to appear before a federal appeals court, but McAndrew isn’t optimistic about its chances. Opening up web platforms to product liability-style suits creates too much liability to go around, he said.

Still, McAndrew does think that a similar approach focusing on flaws inherent to the construction or design of the device itself could be  applied to the Internet of Things.

In September, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Bill SB-327, which requires devices that connect to the Internet to posses reasonable security features. It’s the first law of its kind in the United States.

“We’re actually starting to go down this road of product liability for cybersecurity,” McAndrew said.

If that’s the case, then there might still be some crossover into cyber harassment law. Digital threats have begun to extend beyond words, facilitated by the ability to hack someone’s thermostat and crank the heat to 100 degrees or turn on someone’s bedroom lights in the middle of the night.

“[Internet of Things] devices are now the weapons of choice for domestic abuse,” McAndrew said.