Facebook Ignores Harassment Complaints

Posted May 21, 2012 in Internet Law by

What do you do when you find an imposter page on Facebook with your name, photo and false information you’d rather not have your loved ones, or coworkers, see?

  • Facebook took a month to remove sexually explicit imposter page
  • The law provides a range of civil and criminal penalties against online stalkers
  • Protect your data and personal information before someone uses it against you


A Very Graphic Way

A recent story in Consumer Reports (print version only) took the social media empire to task for the ease with which personal data could be viewed and misappropriated, both through the company’s own policies and by over-sharing by imprudent users. One unfortunate consumer, Kevin Jolly, found his identity taken over by a Facebook impostor in the form of a fake page featuring his name and picture, designed to harass and humiliate him.

The imposter “friended” Jolly’s friends and colleagues, then unleashed a daily torrent of sexually explicit messages. “He portrayed me as a very flamboyant gay man who wanted to share his sexual desires in a very, very graphic way,” Jolly told a local television affiliate. Though he immediately told Facebook about the fake profile, it was nearly a month before the company took action.

The lesson, here: Facebook customer service may not be the most efficient or effective means to address harassment. Instead, when unwanted online attention turns threatening or damaging to a person’s reputation, it may be wiser to go directly to an attorney or law enforcement to ensure that your complaint is followed through on.

Laws vary by state, but most jurisdictions carry the potential for civil and criminal action against online malefactors, either specifically or bundled with other harassment laws. “Some states include language including electronic communications. Some states have created stand-alone harassment statutes,” says Salar Atrizadeh, an attorney in Beverly Hills. California has harassment laws, for example, that provide for up to a year in prison and $1,000 in fines. There is also a federal law against interstate domestic violence that could apply to online harassment or stalking of a partner and result in more severe penalties.

Civil suits, on the other hand, can be used to win monetary damages, or to gain an injunction or restraining order against the offender.

Defamation, Libel, Slander

Salar Atrizadeh

The ease with which the Internet facilitates communication also provides a wide range of opportunities for people to cause trouble, which could violate the law in various ways depending on the nature of the offense. “One thing to keep in mind is that examples of harassment could include different things,” says Atrizadeh. “It could be sending emails; uploading unauthorized pictures or video; disseminating false or private information online; [or] defamation, libel, slander. It could be by encouraging users to rate or tag humiliating photos; impersonating another user in a chat room; spreading rumors through social networking; publishing libel or defamation; or publishing a false website to defame a person or a company.”

As Kevin Jolly learned, Facebook, or whatever online venue a stalker uses, might not be terribly effective at resolving the problem. Attorneys and the police are your friends in those situations, especially when your physical safety is threatened.

“I would say [contact] both,” Atrizadeh says. “See what the police say. If there’s any danger of imminent harm or violence, I would say call the authorities immediately. Then follow with a call to a lawyer.”

Attorneys can help to pursue civil remedies, and will also provide a referral to the proper law enforcement agencies when criminal charges appear to be warranted.


Secure your Page

To help prevent harassment and identity theft before they start, Consumer Reports recommends a number of steps that users can take to protect themselves and their personal information (quoted from the print story):

  • Think before you type. Even if you delete an account (which takes Facebook about a month), some info can remain in Facebook’s computers for up to 90 days.
  • Regularly check your exposure. Each month, check out how your page looks to others. Review individual privacy settings if necessary.
  • Protect basic information. Set the audience for profile items, such as your town or employer. And remember: Sharing info with “friends of friends” could expose it to tens of thousands.
  • Know what you can’t protect. Your name and profile picture are public. To protect your identity, don’t use a photo, or use one that doesn’t show your face.
  • “UnPublic” your wall. Set the audience for all previous wall posts to just friends.
  • Turn off Tag Suggest. If you’d rather not have Facebook automatically recognize your face in photos, disable that feature in your privacy settings. The information will be deleted.
  • Block apps and sites that snoop. Unless you intercede, friends can share personal information about you with apps. To block that, use controls to limit the info apps can see.
  • Keep wall posts from friends. You don’t have to share every wall post with every friend. You can also keep certain people from viewing specific items in your profile.
  • When all else fails, deactivate. When you deactivate your account, Facebook retains your profile data, but the account is made temporarily inaccessible. Deleting an account, on the other hand, makes it inaccessible to you forever.

Visit the Communications and Media Law area on Lawyers.com to learn more and find a lawyer who can help you if you are being stalked or harassed online.

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