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CyberBullying Bill needs some work

Rep. Linda Sanchez, sister of this blog’s favorite member of Congress, is a sponsor behind HR 1966, otherwise known as the CyberBullying Bill.  The idea behind the bill is solid — make it a crime to have someone use new technologies like email, social media, text and SMS messaging to harrass or bully someone.  The penalty is a couple years in jail.  And there are a couple of high profile cases out there where cyberbullying has gone to the extreme

But how do you define speech via new technologies that constitute cyber bullying?

From the LA Times opinion piece on Sunday: The bill is so vaguely written, constitutional scholar Eugene Volokh has noted, that it could be used against people who lobbied elected officials, demanded refunds for shoddy goods or organized boycotts online, if their words were “severe” enough. That’s why the proposal would have a hard time withstanding a 1st Amendment challenge if it ever became law.

Instead, I think a better use of taxpayer dollars would be spent on educating law enforcement on new technologies and how they can extend virtual threats to the same status as real world threats.  So, if you’ve  borrowed money from some shylock and there’s no written contract, if he/she threatens you unless they get a payment might consititute exhortion.  Or, if someone texts you and suggests that gang members are coming to your home for a personal conversation, that might constitute a threat of physical violence.  Or, perhaps someone slanders you on Facebook or Twitter — anonymously. 

A cyberbullying bill that makes it easier for individuals to expose anonymous slanderers might be more useful because now, you pretty much need a lawyer and a court order.

Here are some steps to combat cyberbullying:

Take it Seriously

1. Contact the Police
If you are receiving threats of violence, are being made to feel unsafe, or believe a law has been broken — call the police. Don’t believe that “it’s only the internet” and somehow not part of the “real” world. Kathy Sierra did the right thing when she contacted the authorities. Better safe than sorry.

2. Even if it’s not illegal it could still be breaking the rules
While you might at first think that since an abusive comment isn’t “illegal” you have no recourse, don’t forget that the various services we use online each have their own additional rules and regulations. Most companies providing web-hosting, email, and internet access have terms of use that extend beyond what is or is not allowed by law. It may be legal to make certain statements under free-speech laws, but many web hosting providers are more restrictive.

Know Your Enemy

3. WHOIS responsible for this?
If you find bullying content on a website with it’s own unique domain, such as, you can use the service at to lookup information on where a website is hosted. This will usually provide you with the name of the web hosting provider, and you can visit their site to find theirs terms of service and contact info to report any abuse of their service.

4. WHOIS the people in your neighbourhood?
In addition to finding more info on a URL, you can also lookup where an IP address is originating. An IP address is like a digital fingerprint — it’s traceable back to a specific computer. While a user could enter someone else’s (or a ficticious) name, email, or website URL with a comment on your blog, their IP address is recorded automatically. Doing an IP lookup will show you the organization that owns the address (the Internet Service Provider), and often the email address to contact to report abuse of their service. Be sure to include both the IP address and time the comment was posted. In wordpress, the admin panel section for managing comments posted to your blog includes a link from each recorded IP address to the WHOIS search.

Shut them down

5. Bullying Blog Buster
Blogger’s Terms of Service states:

“Member agrees not to transmit through the Service any unlawful, harassing, libelous, abusive, threatening, or harmful material of any kind or nature.”

As well as:

“You agree that Pyra (Blogger/Google), in its sole discretion, may terminate your password, BlogSpot Site, use of the Service or use of any other Pyra service, and remove and discard any Content within the Service, for any reason, including, without limitation, for lack of use or if Pyra believes that you have violated or acted inconsistently with the letter or spirit of the TOS (Terms of Service).”

If you find a bullying blog, use the Blogger Problem Reporting Form to let them know about it.

You can similarly report abuse on for any content that is “offensive, illegal or violate the rights, harm, or threaten the safety of any person.”

6. You don’t have mail
If you’re receiving abusive email from a cyberbully, in addition to contacting authorities you can contact the email service provider and have their account supsended. Free email services usually include Terms of Service as well. Gmail states that:

“You shall not, shall not agree to, and shall not authorize or encourage any third party to: (i) use the Service to upload, transmit or otherwise distribute any content that is unlawful, defamatory, harassing, abusive, fraudulent, obscene, contains viruses, or is otherwise objectionable as reasonably determined by Google.”

If you receive email from a gmail account that is harassing and/or abusive, you can report it to them. Other free email providers like Yahoo! and Hotmail have similar policies, and methods to report problems.

Streetproof Your Blog

I’m running WordPress, so that’s what I’ll talk about today. Hopefully we can add to this list.

7. Install the Akismet, Spam Karma 2, and the Bad Behaviour plugins for WordPress
These plugin were primarily created to help block comment spam from your site, but they will also block users trying to use an open proxy to leave comments on your site from an untraceable IP address. Traceable IP addresses mean you’ll be able to report abusive comments to their hosting provider and/or the authorities. (see above)

8. Install Identicons or MonsterID plugins for WordPress
These plugins can be used to display a custom image based on the IP address of the person leaving a comment. Even if the user has a dynamic IP address or posts comments from multiple computers the generated images are more likely to be closer in appearance than those created from the IP address of an impostor from a different geographic region. If a regular commenter suddenly has an unusual Identicon, you might want to double check the source of their IP address. It might indicate someone is impersonating another user.


  1. afraid to say afraid to say August 25, 2009

    Would this be helpful in shutting up the waste of human skin at the local santa ana blog, oj

    • Dan Chmielewski Dan Chmielewski Post author | August 25, 2009

      Probably not; the beauty of the First Amendment is that people you diagree with have every right to say what they want. But free speech also requires a high degree of responsibility. That blank computer screen is a signed confession for bigotry and ignorance sometimes.

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