New Expectations for Responsible Provision of Internet Access
The Internet can shine a harsh and unexpected spotlight on an employer, a library, a school or a church. If such an organization provides guests, students or employees access to the Internet, the users can engage in misbehavior that embarrasses the organization. A good example of misbehavior is “cyberbullying.”
Cyberbullying is new term, not well defined. Milder versions of it happen all the time: kids – and older people – constantly send rude, nasty or taunting messages through chat, instant messaging and social networking.
More severe versions are common as well, including threats and hate speech.
A few states have adopted legislation relevant to cyberbullying. Florida, for instance, outlaws two forms of what it calls “cyberstalking.” (See Florida Statute 784.048.)
The first form, which is less serious, pertains to causing emotional distress, that is: “engaging in a course of conduct to communicate, or to cause to be communicated, words, images, or language by or through the use of electronic mail or electronic communication, directed at a specific person, causing substantial emotional distress to that person and serving no legitimate purpose.”
The second and more serious form pertains to threats of physical harm: “Any person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person, and makes a credible threat with the intent to place that person in reasonable fear of death or bodily injury of the person, or the person’s child, sibling, spouse, parent, or dependent, commits the offense of aggravated stalking, a felony of the third degree . . .”
Could an organization be held legally liable for bullying engaged by its users? It could. But what’s more likely at risk is the organization’s reputation. Internet trash talk can besmirch an organization.
Example: The Durham, North Carolina, Police Department attracted unwanted publicity when two officers allegedly made racially-charged comments on Myspace concerning President-elect Obama. When a public institution is associated (even unwillingly) with such talk, supporters like taxpayers become alarmed.
An institution can unwittingly be associated with Internet mischief simply because the culprits use the institution’s PCs. It’s easy for an investigator or journalist to trace back to a source school or library by way of its IP address (unique number assigned to computers attached to the Internet).
Organizations have good reason to provide affordable Internet access to kids and guests. But they need to post and enforce a policy against bullying, and they need to use controls to monitor and block offensive activity.
–Benjmain Wright – Instructor on Internet Law at the SANS Institute.