Anyone who has personal experience of stalking, as I have, will know just how frightening it is, how dreadful to be overwhelmed by the relentless obsession of another person. In real life a measure of protection and redress is offered. But what if the threat comes from some anonymous source, perhaps from another country, through the internet?
I read recently of the case of Leandra Ramm, an opera singer who lives in New York, who has been the object of a relentless campaign of cyber-stalking from someone based in Singapore, an individual with whom she has no personal connection whatsoever. The details are really quite awful.
Apparently he has bombarded her with around 4000 internet messages over a five year period, all aimed at the worst forms of character assassination. Not only has he depicted her as a talentless, sex-crazed swindler but he also went so far as to create a blog in her name, specifically to post obscenities, as well as lodging the same messages on her own website. Death threats have become increasingly frequent.
In such circumstances the obvious thing to do is report the matter to the police, especially if there is a threat of personal violence; I most certainly would. Leandra Ramm did, only to be told by the NYPD that there was nothing that they could do, considering that the offence was committed half-way across the world. When the matter was taken up with the authorities in Singapore they showed no more interest than those in New York.
So, here we have a woman faced with daily death threats, not just directed at her but all those associated with her, including her friends and family. She says, unsurprisingly, that her career, her social life and her general mental health have all suffered as a consequence, leaving her feeling “humiliated, helpless and abused.” Just how serious this is, just how serious the impact on the victims is, was highlighted by Brigit Roth, a senior detective specialising in cyber-crime in Germany, who says that people are left traumatised in the same fashion as survivors of an air crash.
I saw from a report in the Economist that the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that cyber-stalking has affected around a quarter of all staking victims in the United States alone, some people devoting all of their time to this particular form of harassment. Barack Obama even went so far as to highlight the problem to mark a recent Stalking Awareness Month, though so far little in the way of a practical solution has been offered.
Internet Service Providers can be contacted, certainly, but the process is slow and cumbersome, with organisations like Google, Facebook and Yahoo requiring court orders before releasing information about suspects. According to the British Crown Prosecution Service this can mean delays of up to three months. Meanwhile the abuse goes on, or the abuser, sometimes made aware that he or she is under investigation, simply dives deeper into the technical anonymity offered to the computer savvy.
England, I’m happy to say, is taking a lead in dealing with this problem. The police are under an obligation to asses the potential for violence in every case reported to them, acting under guidelines introduced by the prosecution service. There are even proposals to make offenders undergo treatment once caught and convicted.
With plenty of evidence I feel sure that conviction would not be a problem. Catching, unfortunately, is something altogether more problematic. As with paedophilia there really has to be a high degree on international cooperation, and there has to be a far greater willingness on the part of service providers to work with the police. Otherwise creeps will continue to creep, doing untold damage in the process.