Congresswoman Katherine Clark of Massachusetts is not particularly happy about how the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice have responded—or not—to online threats against women, particularly the ones we've been seeing this year from the very devoted fans of Gamergate. Today, she launched a full-scale campaign to urge the DOJ to actually prosecute those threats. She spoke to Jezebel today about that initiative, and what she calls a "disappointing" meeting with the FBI.
Clark is the congresswoman for Brianna Wu, the Boston-based game developer who's been relentlessly trolled for months by Gamergaters. Clark's office, she says, has been "watching Gamergate unfold" for several months.
"We discovered this fall that Brianna was a constituent and reached out to her about what we could do," Clark said. "That led us eventually speaking with the FBI about how they're handling these cases."
Or, you know, not handling them at all. It's exceedingly difficult to get law enforcement to take online threats and harassment seriously. Danielle Citron, the law professor and author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, estimates that the DOJ has only prosecuted 10 cases of cyber-stalking between 2010 and 2013. (A Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that there are 2.5 million cases of serious and frightening harassment each year, though they don't specify what portion of that is online.) To date, not a single violent threat made against Wu, Anita Sarkeesian or Zoe Quinn has result in an actual, prosecuted criminal case.
Clark, a former prosecutor, says her office met with seven representatives from the FBI in February to determine how seriously the agency is taking the problem.
"It was disappointing," Clark says. "This is clearly just not one of their priorities. For me as a former prosecutor, it echoed what we would see 20 years ago around domestic violence." She said that while the FBI are obviously "committed public servants," they didn't seem terribly interested in the Gamergate problem.
"One of the things that struck us was that we'd been trying to reach them about Brianna Wu's specific case for many months," Clark says. "When they came to the meeting, they didn't seem to even know that information, which we were surprised to hear."
Wu spoke to us, saying, "It's hard to over-stress just how supportive Clark's office has been to me, and how concerned they've been about the problem. Law enforcement is taking this seriously thanks to her. It really speaks to the need to get women elected."
Clark is also aware that local police can be less than useful, she says: "We've heard from many women that local police are often well-intentioned and wanted to be helpful, but may not even know what Twitter was is never mind the power it can have and the real effects it can have on someone's life and feelings of safety and ability make money. There's also the chilling effect on their freedom of expression."
And so Clark is politely going nuclear: in a press release today, she called on the DOJ to "prioritize" online threats against women. She's also sent a letter to her fellow members of Congress and to the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies—the entity that oversees the DOJ—asking them to put language in the 2016 appropriations act that specifically addresses online threats. Here's the language she wants to see added:
The Committee is concerned with the increased instances of severe harassment, stalking, and threats transmitted in interstate commerce in violation of federal law. These targeted attacks against Internet users, particularly women, have resulted in the release of personal information, forced individuals to flee their homes, has had a chilling effect on free expression, and are limiting access to economic opportunity. The Committee strongly urges the Department to intensify its efforts to combat this destructive abuse and expects to see increased investigations and prosecutions of these crimes. [Emphasis ours]
Clark emphasizes that she's not calling on the DOJ to regulate the Internet or enforce laws that don't exist—just the existing federal ones that make it a crime "to transmit threats of bodily injury in interstate commerce" and the one that makes it illegal to use "electronic communication to place a person in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury."
"I certainty understand there are 15,000 FBI agents globally and they're looking at many issues of terrorism," Clark says. "Resources are definitely an issue. But what we haven't heard from them, and why we did the letter to appropriations to urge them to make this a priority, is if they need more resources to prosecute those crimes."
The economic impact on women is real, Clark says, and she takes it seriously as a threat to the national economy: "Many of the women [targeted by] Gamergate had to not accept lucrative speaking opportunities and decline public events where they received threats that were very specific," Clark says. (Brianna Wu's company Giant Spacekat pulled out of the gaming convention PAX East due to threats.)
"This is an issue that people are paying attention to," Clark says. "We do not think this a harmless hoax. We think this has real-life implications for women, both personally in their feelings of safety and also economically as they try to put their careers together. There are very few careers choices these days that don't have some intersection with your online presence."
Clark has also been threatened online, she says. "Not to the degree many women face, but when I was a state senator we had to have state troopers go out and talk to one person. That's exactly why I'm bringing this up. As a member of Congress, the threats leveled at me would get a very different level of priority and attention. That should be available to women across the country as well."
Photo via AP