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Most jurisdictions have had laws defining and punishing stalking, harassment, and bullying for some time. With electronic communication becoming the primary form of communication, most jurisdictions have had to address the issue of cyberstalking, harassment, and bullying. As a result, cyber harassment laws, which are designed to prosecute these types of attacks, now exist in many jurisdictions.
Harassment, in legal terms, is usually defined as continued and/or systematic unwanted actions by a party toward a victim. This may include threats, demands, or coercion, and may be based on an individual dislike of the person or on the race, nationality, political or religious beliefs, or sex of the person being harassed. Stalking generally includes harassment with the addition of a credible threat to the victim. Bullying is a relatively new legal term which is frequently interchangeable with harassment with the addition of the requirement that the victim is a minor.
With the advent of the Internet came cyber crimes, including cyber harassment. Cyber harassment is simply harassment carried out through electronic means. Common examples of this type of harassment include repeated unwanted or threatening e-mails, instant messages, or social network contacts. Cyber harassment may also take the form of bogs or entire websites designed to upset, bother or verbally attack a victim.
Existing harassment laws can sometimes be used to prosecute cyber harassment, but many jurisdictions have enacted separate cyber harassment laws designed to specifically address the act of harassing someone online. Cyber harassment laws may also be used in conjunction with existing laws, such as laws that protect victims of a crime from contact by the offender. Violation of a no contact order, for example, may be charged as a violation alone or may be charged under existing laws.
In many cases, the victim of cyber harassment knows who the perpetrator of the crime is, but sometimes the perpetrator may be hiding behind the shield created by the Internet. Another advantage of these laws is that they often provide legal mechanisms for obtaining the identity of the perpetrator. Cyber harassment laws have put pressure on Internet providers, social network sites, and other websites to require identifying information when a user logs on or utilizes the site or service.
Penalties for violating cyber harassment laws vary widely by jurisdiction. In most cases, cyber harassment is charged as a misdemeanor. The more serious crime of cyberstalking, however, may be a felony in some jurisdictions and punishable by a lengthy prison sentence.