Important Online Harassment Laws in California to Know
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For Californians who are the target of online harassment, you may be wondering what your legal options are. Depending on the type of online harassment you are experiencing, online harassment laws in California provide some protection and legal recourse. In particular, California criminalizes the following types of online abuse:
- Cyber harassment,
- Cyber exploitation, and
To be charged with cyber harassment in California, a perpetrator must use an electronic communication device to post information on the internet about an individual that is likely to incite unlawful behavior by a third party. To be charged with cyberstalking in California, a perpetrator must willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follow, harass, or threaten another person to the point that they reasonably fear for their safety or the safety of their family.
To be charged with cyber exploitation in California, a perpetrator must intentionally distribute intimate sexual material of another person without their consent. Finally, to be charged with threats, a perpetrator must threaten to unlawfully kill or cause great bodily injury to another person.
At Minc Law, we have dedicated our practice to stopping online harassment and internet abuse. We help hold perpetrators accountable for the electronic crimes that they commit and work with targets of internet abuse to effectively monitor their digital footprints to protect against future online harassment.
Below, we explain the types of online behavior that have been criminalized in California. We also discuss how, and to whom, you can report online harassment in the state of California if you are a victim.
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What Constitutes Online Harassment in California?
Online harassment is ubiquitous, including in California. According to a 2021 Pew Research Center Report, 41% of Americans have at some point been the target of online harassment. The vast majority (roughly 75%) of these attacks occur on social media platforms and applications.
In 2019 alone, over 35% of California youth reported being cyberbullied. And, these numbers are growing rapidly. The same Pew Research survey found that 32.5% of minors reported being cyberbullied only three years earlier.
What Are the Most Common Types of Online Harassment?
The most common types of online bullying and harassment in California include:
- Revenge pornography (also known as nonconsensual pornography),
- Online extortion and sextortion, and
Cyberbullying is the bullying or harassment of a child via electronic means and commonly occurs across a wide spectrum of platforms and applications, including social media, SMS texts, and online gaming forums (such as Discord).
Cyberstalking is a form of electronic harassment that involves the repeated and unwanted stalking of an individual. Cyberstalkers typically track a target’s behavior or monitor their whereabouts without permission and make unwanted, threatening electronic contact with said target.
Revenge porn, commonly referred to as nonconsensual pornography, involves the distribution of intimate images without consent. Revenge porn does not always require revenge as a motive and may occur as a form of extortion or even with no known motive.
Video: What to Do If Someone is Sharing Your Intimate Images Without Consent
Doxxing involves the release of personally-identifying information about an individual and commonly includes the individual’s address, phone number, email address, social security number, or other sensitive financial information.
For doxxing to occur, personally-identifying information must typically be released for the purpose of threatening or harming the targeted individual.
Online Extortion & Sextortion
Online extortion occurs when an individual obtains goods or services from an individual or business by threat or coercion. For instance, someone may threaten to post negative reviews about a business online unless some form of payment is received.
Sextortion is a form of extortion where a perpetrator threatens to release intimate images or media unless some form of ransom is paid. The ransom can be money, additional explicit images, or even sexual favors.
Swatting is when an individual calls emergency services and dispatches them to someone’s house without cause. The caller typically makes up a very dangerous situation, such as a bomb threat, hostage situation, or suicide attempt.
How Do California Laws Criminalize Online Harassment?
Harassment refers to the knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific person that a reasonable person would consider as seriously alarming, annoying, tormenting, or terrorizing.
Cyber Harassment Defined Under California Law – 653.2 PC
California criminalizes cyber harassment under Section 653.2 of the California Penal Code. Under 653.2, it is a misdemeanor to electronically post certain types of information about an individual on the internet. The information posted must be likely to incite or produce unlawful action by a third person and commonly takes the form of personally-identifying information like a digital image of another person or a harassing message about the other person.
Furthermore, harassing communication must be made with the intent to place the victim in reasonable fear for their safety or the safety of their immediate family. The harassing communication must also be made without the consent of the victim and for the purpose of causing the victim unwanted physical contact, injury, or harassment by a third party.
For example, a message could rise to the level of cyber harassment if a perpetrator posts a photograph of an individual, his or her address, and calls on third parties to “punch him for me if you see him.”
Several of the above types of online harassment are typically addressed through California’s cyber harassment statute (653.2).
Cyberbullying in California
There is no criminal statute that specifically refers to cyberbullying in California. However, actions that are typically classified as cyberbullying may fall within the definitions of California’s cyber harassment and cyberstalking laws.
In addition, there are protections for students under California’s Safe Place to Learn Act. Under the Safe Place to Learn Act, all public schools in California must adopt (and implement) policies and procedures to address bullying of all sorts, including cyberbullying and cybersexual bullying.
Is Doxxing a Crime in California?
Yes, doxxing is a crime in California and typically addressed under Section 653.2 of the California Penal Code. Specifically, it is a crime for an individual to release personally-identifying information about another person with the intent of causing that person unwanted physical contact, injury, or harassment.
The release of that information must place the victim in reasonable fear for their or their immediate family’s safety. Additionally, the information must have been posted without the consent of the victim.
Is Trolling Illegal in California?
Trolling is not unlawful in the state of California. Trolling involves the posting of hostile, inflammatory, or off-topic messages on a social media platform or application.
However, if trolling rises to the level of electronic criminal harassment or includes threats it may be considered unlawful and addressed under Section 653.2.
Cyberstalking Defined Under California Law – 646.9 PC
California criminalizes cyberstalking in California Penal Code 646.9. Under 646.9, it is a crime for a person to willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follow, harass, or threaten another person to the point that the victim is reasonably afraid for their safety or the safety of their family.
Cyber Exploitation Defined Under California Law – 647(j)(4) PC
California also criminalizes the unwanted distribution of intimate images online. California classifies this cyber exploitation, also known as revenge porn.
Under California Penal Code 647(j)(4), California’s ‘revenge porn law’, it is a misdemeanor to intentionally distribute intimate sexual material of another person without their consent. Furthermore, the distributor must have known (or reasonably anticipated) that distributing such content would cause emotional distress if published AND it must actually cause emotional distress in the victim.
Threats Defined Under California Law – 422 PC
Under California Penal Code 422, it is unlawful to communicate criminal threats to a third party. A criminal threat is limited to a threat to unlawfully kill or cause great bodily injury to another person. In addition, the defendant must have intended that the threat be carried out.
Threats can be communicated by electronic communication, including messenger apps, SMS texts, or email.
Finally, the threat must be so clear and immediate that the victim understood it to be an actual threat. The victim must also be reasonably afraid for their safety or the safety of their immediate family.
What Legal Protections Does California Offer to the Victims of Online Harassment?
California provides several key criminal and civil protections for targets of cyber harassment and abuse.
Restraining Orders – C.C.P. §527.6
Californians who are harassed or stalked online may file a request for a restraining order against the person harassing or stalking them. If granted, it prohibits the offender from intimidating, stalking, threatening, or otherwise harassing you.
In California, a restraining order may be enacted for up to five years.
Cyberstalking 646.9(k) PC
If a perpetrator is found guilty of cyberstalking, the court will consider a restraining order. If granted, the offender is not permitted to contact the stalking victim. Restraining orders under this section can last for up to 10 years, depending on the seriousness of the offense.
Deterrence Through Potential Criminal Penalties
As emphasized above, California criminalizes cyber harassment under four key criminal codes These are:
- Cyber Harassment Laws: It is unlawful to electronically post certain types of harmful information about a victim with the intent to incite violence.
- Cyberstalking Laws: It is unlawful to intentionally follow, harass, or threaten someone to the point they fear for their imminent safety (or their family’s).
- Cyber Exploitation Laws: It is unlawful to distribute sexually intimate images of a victim online.
- Threat Laws: It is unlawful to communicate threats to seriously hurt or kill a victim online.
Requests to California Corrections to Be Notified of Prisoner Release
A victim, family member, or witness may request notice of when a convicted stalker will be released from jail or prison. Notice must be provided by phone or mail 15 days before the stalker is released.
Prevention of Release of Automobile Registration & Driver’s License Records
Stalking victims may request that the California Department of Motor Vehicles keep their driver’s license records and automobile registration confidential. They may also request that voter registration information, changes to their names or addresses, and other private information be kept confidential.
Penalties for Online Harassment in California
Most forms of online harassment in California are classified as misdemeanors. However, in certain circumstances, and where aggravating factors exist, the penalties may be increased.
What is the Criminal Penalty for Online Harassment in California?
Cyber Harassment – 653.2 PC
Cyber harassment is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in county jail, by a fine of up to $1,000, or both.
Cyberstalking – 646.9 PC
Cyberstalking is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in county jail, by a fine of $1,000, or both.
However, several aggravating factors can extend the sentence. If the offender commits cyberstalking in violation of a temporary restraining order, injunction, or other court order, the sentence can be increased to state imprisonment for two, three, or four years.
If the offender has been convicted of sexual assault or criminal threatening, the sentence can be increased to two, three, or five years in state prison.
In addition, a person convicted of felony stalking can be ordered to register as a sex offender.
Cyber Exploitation – 647(j)(4) PC
Cyber exploitation is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in the county jail, a fine of $1,000, or both.
Multiple amplifiers can increase a perpetrator’s sentence. If the offender is being convicted for a second or subsequent violation, punishment is increased to up to one year in county jail, a fine of up to $2,000, or both.
If the victim is a minor at the time of the offense, then the crime becomes punishable by jail for one year, a fine of up to $2,000, or both.
If the offender also commits an offense under California Penal Code 647(b) relating to solicitation of prostitution, the sentence may also be extended. For example, if the perpetrator solicited a minor for prostitution and the offender knew or should have known that the person was a minor, then the offense is punishable by at least two days but no more than a year in jail, a fine no more than $10,000, or both.
Threats – 422 PC
Communicating criminal threats is a misdemeanor under California law and is punishable by imprisonment in county jail or state prison for up to one year.
What is the Range of Possible Penalties for Online Harassment in California?
There are countless penalties for online harassment, stalking, exploitation, and threats in California. Generally, cyber crimes are punishable by up to one year in county jail and a fine of up to $1,000. However, the crimes of cyberstalking and cyber exploitation can have steeper punishment if certain factors are met.
What Penalties Can Be Imposed by the Platform Used for Online Harassment on the Harasser?
In addition to criminal penalties from the State, there may also be additional penalties imposed by the platforms on which the harassing posts were published.
Twitter’s Policy Prohibiting Online Harassment
Twitter prohibits targeted harassment of individuals and businesses. It also prohibits the incitement of others to harass someone.
Consequences for violating Twitter’s ToS, abuse, and anti-bullying policies include:
- Downranking tweets in replies,
- Making tweets ineligible for amplification in top search results,
- Excluding tweets or accounts in email/product recommendations,
- Requiring tweet removal,
- Suspending accounts.
Facebook’s Community Standards
Facebook enforces a strict policy against bullying and harassment. Examples of harassing behavior include publishing threats, releasing personally-identifying information, sending threatening messages, or making unwanted malicious contact with an individual.
Consequences for violating Facebook’s abuse policy include:
- Removing content meant to degrade or shame another person,
- (Eventually) banning the user if they repeatedly violate its community guidelines.
Instagram’s Anti-Bullying Policy
Instagram also prohibits online harassment and bullying. Users may report offensive comments using an online complaint form.
Consequences for violations of Instagram’s anti-bullying policy include:
- Removing content,
- Banning individuals from the platform.
How is Online Harassment Punished in California?
A person may be found guilty of online harassment in California if they use an electronic communication device to post specific types of invasive or harmful information about an individual on the internet.
How Does California Law Classify Online Harassment?
“Harassment” is the driving term that makes up the definition of online harassment in the state of California. Harassment requires “a knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific person that a reasonable person would consider as seriously alarming, seriously annoying, seriously tormenting, or seriously terrorizing the person and that serves no legitimate purpose.”
Online harassment must be conducted using an “electronic communication device.” An electronic communication device includes (but is not limited to): telephones, cell phones, computers, Internet web pages or sites, Internet phones, hybrid cellular/Internet/wireless devices, personal digital assistants, video recorders, fax machines, and pagers.
What Are the Penalties for Misdemeanors in California?
Misdemeanors in California are punishable by imprisonment in county jail for up to six months, a fine up to $1,000, or both.
Penalties for cyberstalking, cyber harassment, and threats can all exceed this six-month penalty period. Each crime allows for punishment of up to one year in jail.
In addition, cyber exploitation has aggravating factors that, when found, can increase the sentence to up to one year in jail plus a fine of up to $10,000. Cyberstalking amplifiers can increase the punishment to up to 10 years in jail.
It is important to note that the punishment for ‘threats’ does not include a fine.
How Does California Law Punish Cyberstalking?
Cyberstalking is punished the same way that the crime of stalking is punished. Cyberstalking is punished with a jail sentence of up to one year in county jail, a fine of $1,000, or both.
However, this sentence can be amplified if the perpetrator is a registered sex offender or violates a temporary restraining order or other court order. Depending on the facts of the invasive act, a judge may also classify the stalker as a sex offender.
How to File an Online Harassment Complaint With California Law Enforcement
If you are the target of online harassment in California, we generally recommend filing a report with your local law enforcement.
An experienced online harassment and internet attorney can help walk you through elements, evidence, and arguments that would be most helpful to bolster your online harassment claim.
When Should You File a Complaint with California Law Enforcement About Online Harassment?
Contact your local law enforcement if you feel you are in immediate danger.
While danger is generally understood to mean a ‘physical danger’, online harassment can also take a heavy emotional toll. If cyber harassment causes you emotional distress or any mental issues, you should also consider contacting your local law enforcement.
Contacting local law enforcement has the added benefit of officially documenting the abuse. This helps establish a record of the harassment, should the harassment continue.
What Information Do You Need to File an Online Harassment Complaint in California?
If you believe you are the target of an internet crime, you can file an online complaint with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) or through your local police department.
Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3)
You can file your IC3 complaint on behalf of yourself, or on behalf of a third party who is the victim of an internet crime.
When filing your complaint, you will be asked to include the following information:
- The victim’s name, address, telephone number, and email
- Financial transaction information, if applicable
- The person who committed the internet crime’s name, address, telephone number, email, website, and IP address, if known
- Specific details of the crime
- Email headers, and
- Any other information you think is necessary to support your complaint.
File an Online Harassment Report Through Your Local Police Department
You can also file a report with your local police department. You can find your local police department on this map.
Alternatively, you can also file a harassment complaint or report with the local sheriff. A sheriff is an officer at the county level, rather than the city or town level. You can find a list of sheriff departments in California here.
How Can Plaintiffs Strengthen Their Case in an Online Harassment Case in California?
First, make sure to document all instances of harassment and preserve whatever incidents of harassment you can.
Social media posts can be temporary (like Snapchat) or can be deleted by the user. You may also be tempted to remove the offending post or message yourself. Nobody wants a reminder of the horrible things that were said about them.
While your instinct may be to delete the post, you must preserve the evidence as soon as you see it.
You can preserve evidence by taking screenshots of the offensive posts using your phone or computer. There are also professional software tools, like VisualPing or Page Vault to assist with online harassment preservation. These tools also can help establish an evidentiary “chain of custody.”
When preserving evidence of the online harassment in question, include as many details as you can. Examples of important information include, but are not limited to:
- Name of the abuser,
- Email address of the abuser,
- Details of the abuser’s social media account (including the URL),
- Screenshots of any harassing instances or communications,
- Messages between you and the harasser.
If you missed the window to take a screenshot of the harassment, write down as much information about the interaction you can remember. Always include the date of the abuse and the other information above.
You can find a sample form to help you log the abuse from the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
Work With an Experienced Online Harassment Attorney
Being harassed, stalked, or targeted online can be both terrifying and overwhelming and you may feel like you do not know where to begin to make it stop.
Working with an experienced online harassment attorney can help you understand your rights and your options. A cyber harassment attorney can also help you collect and organize comprehensive evidence of abuse. This will put you in the best possible position if you decide to pursue a civil or criminal action in the future.
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At Minc Law, we know the ins and outs of online harassment laws across the United States and have proven success identifying anonymous internet abusers and holding them accountable for their actions.
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If you need guidance on how to handle your online harassment issue, do not hesitate to reach out to us by calling (216) 373-7706, speaking with a Chat representative, or filling out our online contact form.
David J. Crewe. Instagram Will (Finally) Start Permanently Banning Accounts Who Harass 7 Bully Via Direct Messages. SLR Lounge (2021).