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Online Harassment Bill Gains Momentum

Internet: Maryland legislator uses e-mail bombing of writer to draw attention to the growing problem.

May 25, 1997|JOHN HENDREN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Jayne Hitchcock never imagined she would become the poster child for the movement to ban online harassment.

Then she logged onto the Internet to warn other writers about a New York literary agency she thought was conning her by asking for $225 to review her book.

As The Times reported in February, she was soon "mail bombed" with more than 200 electronic mail missives. Bogus messages using her name, telephone number and address appeared on racist and risque sex newsgroups, inviting suitors to call her or come to her home "day or night."

It wasn't a crime.

Nationwide, only a handful of states--Michigan, Alaska, Oklahoma and Wyoming--have made e-mail or Internet communications subject to the criminal laws that prohibit harassment or stalking.

The Hitchcock case has given Maryland legislator Samuel Rosenberg a face to add to the story he has been telling fellow lawmakers for years.

The Baltimore Democrat has sponsored a bill that would make it illegal for anyone to send anonymous messages that "annoy, abuse, torment, harass or embarrass" the recipient. Violators would face up to three years in prison and a $500 fine.

Although the measure got little attention when Rosenberg introduced it in 1995 and 1996, the House of Delegates approved it last month and it is now under consideration in the Senate. If it doesn't pass before the session ends next Monday, it will again die.

Authorities need to move cautiously into this unchartered legal landscape, said James Love of the Washington, D.C.-based Consumer Project on Technology, founded by consumer activist Ralph Nader.

"It's one thing to say something shouldn't be permitted. It's another thing to say what the remedy should be," Love said. "A lot of annoying behavior should be protected."

Some Internet observers say predators may use e-mail as the first step toward violence.

Cynthia Armistead-Smathers of Atlanta believes she became a target during an e-mail discussion of advertising last June. First she received nasty e-mails from the account of Richard Hillyard of Norcross, Ga. Then she began receiving messages sent through an "anonymous remailer," an online service that masks the sender's identity.

After Hillyard's Internet service provider canceled his account, Armistead-Smathers began getting messages from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, where he worked. Then she got thousands of messages from men who had seen a posting of a nude woman, listing her e-mail address and offering sex during the Atlanta Olympics.

But police said there was little they could do--until she got an anonymous message from someone saying he had followed Armistead-Smathers and her 5-year-old daughter from their post office box to her home.

Hillyard, who was charged with stalking, acknowledges getting into an online argument with Armistead-Smathers over the summer, but says he didn't send the subsequent messages.

The Guardian Angels, which started out patrolling New York subways, has launched CyberAngels to help those who complain of harassment. The group hears from about 200 people a week, a small proportion of the estimated 50 million Internet surfers online worldwide.

Peter Hampton has been called both savior and vigilante for his work in helping computer users combat online harassment from the Web Police page he operates out of his Fishers, Ind., home.

First he calls or writes and asks harassers nicely to stop. Then he uses other methods.

"I can get nasty," said Hampton, a semiretired building contractor. "I can have 3,000 people go into his Web site and actually shut it down because the server can't handle it. We can do--let's just say 'things'--to take him off the air."

Hitchcock hopes new laws will make that approach unnecessary.

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