Massachusetts congresswoman Katherine Clark targets cyber threats, harassment

WASHINGTON — A Massachusetts congresswoman who has been the target of cyber threats unveiled legislation this week that seeks to curb online harassment and other internet-related crimes.

Contending that federal policies have not kept up with online abuses, U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Melrose, formally introduced legislation Tuesday that would give local and federal law enforcement officials resources to investigate and prosecute a range of internet-based crime and threats.

The bill, which has bipartisan support, is known as the Online Safety Modernization Act. It targets online threats known as “doxxing,” where victims’ private addresses and other personal information are released online; non-consensual pornography, in which victims’ private photos are published without permission; and “sextortion,” where private images are used against victims to coerce sexual activity or money.

Clark’s legislation also aims to combat the practice of “swatting,” where people anonymously make false reports prompting a heavily armed police response to a victim’s home — an attack Clark fell victim to in early 2016.

The bill includes provisions similar to those contained in legislation the Massachusetts Democrat pushed in 2016.

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Clark said her legislation looks to give law enforcement and prosecutors the ability and resources they need to go after these types of serious online abuses — efforts that today are stymied by jurisdictional questions, lack of training and other issues.

The congresswoman added that she hopes to address law enforcement’s understanding of the impacts these online crimes can have. She said she has heard from several victims who feel their cases weren’t handled adequately. In one example, Clark said she heard from a journalist who was simply told to stay offline following such attacks.

“We are hoping to both modernize our penal code, but also really begin to change the culture to understand that these are not just virtual crimes and people can just sign off the internet for awhile,” she said in an interview. “These are serious attacks on people that endanger them and also endanger their ability to make a living.”

The legislation, which Clark cast as a “roadmap” for Congress to address online safety, would specifically prohibit use of a victim’s sexually intimate visual depictions to extort or coerce, forcing victims to produce sexually intimate visual depictions, knowingly transmitting false information in an effort to cause an emergency law enforcement response, and knowingly publishing a victim’s personally identifiable information with the intent to harm.

It would also provide an additional $4 million per year in enforcement resources to the FBI and Department of Justice; establish a $20 million-per-year grant program to train and equip state and local law enforcement, prosecutors and judicial personnel on cyber crimes; and set aside $4 million to establish a national resource center to help combat and study cyber crimes, among other things.

U.S. Rep Susan Brooks, R-Ind., who has signed on as a co-sponsor of the legislation, said the measure is needed to appropriately prosecute and punish individuals who engage in cyber harassment.

“The fact of the matter is, the laws governing sextortion, doxxing and swatting were written when computers didn’t fit in our pockets, phones were plugged into walls and texting required a stamp,” she said in a statement. “In order to punish and prosecute these predators to the fullest extent of the law, we must bring our laws into the age of smartphones and SnapChat.”

Fellow co-sponsor U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., added, “this legislation empowers law enforcement to crack down on these activities, protects victims and will ultimately make the internet a safer place to connect with the world around us.”

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Several organizations have come out in support of the legislation, including the National District Attorneys Association, Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, Anti-Defamation League, National Network to End Domestic Violence, Cyber Civil Rights Initiative and FBI Agents Association. Tech giant Facebook has also endorsed Clark’s bill.