The notion of harassment is relatively widespread and people are generally able to identify what verbal, physical, or visual behavior may constitute harassment and prevent it before it gets out of control. However, the evolution of technology and its apparent anonymity has led individuals to easily display a course of conduct that falls within the remit of harassment. That's why Illinois cyber harassment laws have been put into place.
People often behave in an inappropriate way on the internet because of the physical distance between them and the victim due to the geographical distance. It makes it a lot easier to target a person from behind a computer screen or telephone than face to face.
Not only can this lead to sexual harassment claims but it is also an infringement of data privacy since perpetrators escalate their actions by often stalking their victims to gain access to personal information.
In order to remedy this, federal and state laws have been updated to integrate the relatively new notions of "cyberstalking", "cyberbullying" or "electronic harassment". The state of Illinois is one of those states which has gone to great lengths to define these terms in order to turn them into law with new legislation going by the name of 720 ILCS.
Note: The best way to make sure your company is compliant under the State's law is to take our Illinois sexual harassment training. We help prevent harassment in the workplace as well as help you avoid nasty compliance fines. Try a free demo today.
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What constitutes cyber harassment?
In order for employees and employers to be able to recognize cyber harassment, they need to have a clear understanding of several elements, namely the consequence of actions and the form in which they are delivered.
Fear for own safety requirement
In order for there to be harassment two requirements are necessary. Firstly the person committing the act of harassment must knowingly be harassing another person two or more times. Secondly, the person that is the subject of harassment must suffer emotional distress and be afraid about their safety. It is a course of conduct by one person which is fear-inducing and which can be considered as an invasion of a person's privacy.
The Illinois law defines it as the act of someone "transmitting a threat of immediate or future bodily harm, sexual assault, confinement, or restraint" which is aimed at a particular individual as well as a family member. So long as the subject of harassment has a reasonable apprehension of the immediate effect of the act it will be considered as criminal cyberstalking.
The standard of proof here is defined as what would cause a reasonable person to feel worried for their own safety as a result of the attack.
The use of technology
While the idea of harassment and bullying is relatively commonplace it is the medium by which it is delivered that has fundamentally changed in recent years. The emergence of the internet through the omnipresent use of a device has resulted in technology being the conduit by which a person commits a crime. Through the use of electronic communication, a stalker can single out a victim relatively easily without hindrance while remaining a certain distance.
Here the text of the law is very specific and exhaustive in its definition of electronic communications which can be a "transfer of signs, signals, writings, images, sounds, data or intelligence of any nature transmitted in whole or in part by a wire, radio, electromagnetic, photoelectric or photo-optical system." Electronic communication means using an electronic device including but not limited to a telephone, computer, using email, text message, or voice mail to transmit a threat directed at a specific person and that alarms him, her, or related third parties.
The aim of Illinois law is to prevent harassment activities that would not necessarily be considered as obvious such as simple transfer of files or images using a computer to a specific person. The idea here of the cyberstalking law is directed at a specific course of action that communicates a threat.
Most of the time a person who alarms, torments, terrorizes or harasses another person will use social media, online resources or search engines in order to follow, intimidate and muster anxiety or terror in the person.
In terms of punishment, Illinois law states that a first conviction of cyberstalking is a Class 4 felony. Further convictions will be considered as Class 3 felonies, carrying the possibility of a two to five-year sentence in the state penitentiary. This should be highlighted in order to bring attention to the legal repercussions that are carried with cyber harassment.
Note: If you need help making your workforce aware of the pitfalls of cyber harassment and cyberbullying, try our data security training. We'll provide your team a dedicated course so they can possess essential skills for creating a harassment-free workplace that respects data privacy requirements.
As is often the case in criminal cases the idea of intent needs to be present when a defendant is harassing another individual thereby displaying a willful course of conduct. The fact that the person needs to make a knowing and willful courseof action towards another person is important in order to avoid unfounded claims. As such the electronic communications must clearly demonstrate the intent to offend therefore proving the instigator clearly terrorizes that person.
Indeed allegations can be made in order to take revenge on a person. For example, if a person ends a relationship and the other partner is upset about the outcome they could use comments in an electronic communication directed at the ex-partner in order to raise a cyber harassment claim. The notion of intent would prevent the use of the legislation in such a way as the instigator would have knowingly directed an attack on the presumed victim.
This could also occur in the course of employment where an ex-employee could accuse a former co-worker of harassing a person simply as a form of retribution against the employer. This is particularly true if employees are connected on social networks where comments and posts would be considered electronic communications according to the law. Illinois law strongly emphasizes the notion of intent so that the law is not used for a purpose it is not designed for such as retaliation.
How does cyber harassment turn into a breach of data privacy?
While cyber harassment usually presents itself as the use of electronic communication to create fear of immediate or future bodily harm in a target, these same electronic communications can be used to infringe on data privacy laws.
Difference between Cyberstalking and Cyberbullying
Illinois law 720 ILCS has two separate statutes dealing with the matter, namely the Harassing and Obscene Communications Act and the Criminal Code of 1961. As an example, someone who would be cyberstalking would use an internet service to track down the personal and private information of a victim and then terrorize that person on separate occasions through the use of electronic communication. This could be by pursuing them on social media or using electronic monitoring software also known as spyware on the victim's device.
Electronic communication includes transmissions of a wide variety of systems and tools and the law tries to be as exhaustive as possible on the subject. While cyberbullying is easier to recognize when a person alarms, torments and shows clear intent to offend another, stalking is less obvious behavior since by definition it is difficult to identify.
The internet has created the perfect playing field for stalkers as it is the perfect tool through which a person can carry out threats without being immediately identified. A victim can be easily targeted by a perpetrator without any hindrance. Since victims voluntarily share their information online a stalker can use a telephone, computer, or any device to reach out and gather knowledge on the victim. By cross-referencing these details a person will be able to target an individual or their family.
Creating a harassment-free environment
The responsibility lies on everyone to create an environment absent of harassment. In order to stop these actions individuals and in particular employees in the workplace need to know how to recognize that they are going too far. Victims must also know their rights so they can report them as soon as an event occurs. Companies should stay in compliance with harassment laws in Illinois.
With each and everyone having access to a device connected to the internet which can be used to browse social networks it is easy to get carried away with a behavior that is unbecoming and can result in a criminal conviction. Only with the appropriate training and knowledge of the law, especially in the state of Illinois, can employees know what their rights are and what their obligations should be.