The National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, the oldest national domestic violence organization in the U.S., held a briefing on Wednesday, March 15, to discuss cyberstalking and online threats. The event was held in coordination with the Congressional Victims' Rights Caucus and Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass).
Embattled game developer Zoe Quinn was invited to present on the panel and shared with the Washington audience the details of what she described as an ongoing campaign of continuous, at times graphic and disturbing harassment directed at her by the loose organization known as GamerGate. Moderator Ruth Glenn, executive director of The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, called GamerGate "an online hate group ... which was started by an ex-boyfriend to ruin [Quinn's] life."
That event that began GamerGate — the actions of Quinn's ex-boyfriend — was returned to again and again throughout the briefing, and served to link GamerGate's harassment campaign to other acts of domestic abuse, stalking and harassment that specifically target women online. Much of the briefing was devoted to issues of law enforcement, and the prosecution of those responsible for online threats against women.
Early in the briefing Quinn described in detail how GamerGate's "crowdsourced mob" targeted her and other prominent women in the games field.
"There's actually a cottage industry of people who contribute nothing but hatred of marginalized people," Quinn told the audience, "who make their living off of being its figureheads and telling them all where to go next. One of them decided it was wise to hire a [private investigator] to stalk my physical location and report back to them, thus making sure I would never go home again."
"When we see women leaving professions or opting out of the internet just to stay safe, we're talking about a problem that is bigger than just being online."
"It's difficult to wrap your head around the moment-to-moment of what this actually looks like for somebody going through it," she told an audience of about 60, which included representatives of major national women's organizations and legislative staff members.
The event was also broadcast live on Twitter's Periscope service.
"The girl I used to be," Quinn said, "used to sit down and check her email where she'd get the occasional fan letter, business correspondence and spam email. These days they're joined by death threats and graphic fantasies about raping me, often accompanied by my home address and proof that the sender has everything they would need to carry through on them."
GamerGate's campaign of harassment, Quinn said, extends to her father and to the family of her current boyfriend, who now encounter "anti-Semitic, slur-filled hate mail ... constantly."
"When thousands of faceless strangers have set their sights on you, every single aspect of your life is bombarded and probed until who you were before is gone and your life becomes almost unrecognizable."
A hashtag to spread awareness of the issues brought to light during the presentation was hijacked by people identifying themselves as members of GamerGate almost immediately after it was launched on Wednesday; the development was met with gasps from those assembled.
Quinn — who in 2013 released the game Depression Quest and in 2015 co-founded Crash Override, an online anti-hate task force, after she became the target of online abuse — was not alone at the briefing.
Joining her on the panel was Michelle Garcia, director of the Stalking Resource Center, John Wilkinson, attorney advisor at AEquitas: The Prosecutors' Resource on Violence Against Women, and Danielle Keats Citron, professor of law at the University of Maryland School of Law and author of "Hate Crimes in Cyberspace."
While the panel agreed that Quinn's case was a particularly egregious demonstration of organized online hate mobs, it was also indicative of the larger issue of online harassment against women.
During her portion of the briefing, Garcia pointed to a Pew Research Center study from last October, which found that 73 percent of American adult internet users have witnessed online harassment and 40 percent have personally experienced it. The study stated that 26 percent of young women had been stalked online while 25 percent had been the target of online sexual harassment
Clark opened the briefing by pointing to both the social and economic consequences of cyberstalking and harassment.
"Right now many young girls are online navigating their personal lives and their careers," Clark said. "Roughly 80 percent of all jobs, all career decisions, require an online presence. At the same time, we know that women experience sexually explicit messages and threats at a rate 27 times more than that of men.
"When we see women leaving professions or opting out of the internet just to stay safe, we're talking about a problem that is bigger than just being online," Clark said. "Women's ability to fully participate in the internet — in the 21st century economy — is being stifled."
Quinn said that she had received many emails from women who had at one time hoped to enter the world of game development, but had been driven off by GamerGate's relentless efforts to terrorize her and other women in the field.
"I have a whole folder full of correspondence from women that email me, and they're like, 'Hey I wanted to get into games but I saw what happened to you, and best of luck, but I can't deal with that.' And that's terrifying. And so the chilling effect that has is huge, and really needs to be pushed back against actively, or else it's not going to change anything."
Clark has been outspoken in her advocacy on behalf of those suffering from what she refers to as GamerGate's "intimidation campaign." One of her constituents, game developer Brianna Wu, has undergone a similar campaign of online harassment prosecuted by many, both named and anonymouss, including those who associate with GamerGate. Clark discussed the matter at length in an open letter to the Department of Justice on March 10.
"While the women targeted by 'Gamergate' might be the most public examples of online intimidation," Clark's letter reads, "the sad reality is that millions of women are faced with online abuse. From domestic violence victims to journalists, women are increasingly confronted with the reality that using the Internet in their personal and professional lives may subject them to abhorrent gender-based abuse."
Part of the shelter that abusers find online is in the anonymity it provides. But online anonymity is valuable, developer Zoe Quinn said. While it allows harassers to carry on undeterred, it also provides a voice for people who would otherwise be afraid to speak out, such as whistleblowers.
"Tech companies," Quinn said, "are our first line of defense and they need to be — we need to be — able to come up with humane terms of service and technologies to effectively implement them, so that we can avoid things like over-broad legislation that will take away the anonymity of the internet."
Another organization that Quinn is part of, called Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, is a newly formed group currently seeking nonprofit status which is "dedicated to reducing and mitigating online abuse" through, among other things, "collaboration with key tech companies seeking to better support their communities."
Quinn said that so far, OAPI's conversations with tech companies have not all been fruitful. This includes crowdfunding companies, like GoFundMe and Patreon.
"[OAPI] talked with one company," Quinn said, "and we put a victim in touch with them. They said, 'Yes there is revenge porn here. There is doxxing here on this website, which was funded on your platform, and [the individual responsible] has gotten funding from you. Are you going to enforce your [existing] terms of service?' And they're like, oh, that doesn't fall under our terms. We looked at it, and we think it's satire.'"
The discussion of what technology companies can do to stop the harassing behavior quickly turned toward considerations of how to prosecute it.
Wilkins, the attorney for AEquitas, said that instances of cyberstalking and online harassment like those Quinn has endured are incredibly difficult to prosecute.
"Some of the statutes are older statutes," Wilkins said, referring to existing stalking and harassment laws on the books at the state and local level. "They may be a generation old now, and they're not constructed that well, and we probably need to revisit those."
But, he said, the rise in this type of harassment against women must be stopped.
"They're dangerous," Wilkins said, referring to GamerGate. "People who spend that kind of time and effort to go after somebody are dangerous individuals, and we have to be concerned about the victim's safety first and foremost, and make sure that they're safe."
Wilkins went on to add that making arrests and prosecuting even traditional stalking and harassment cases is tough. That this type of activity is now taking place online makes it even more difficult.
"People who spend that kind of time and effort to go after somebody are dangerous individuals, and we have to be concerned about the victim's safety first and foremost, and make sure that they're safe."
Citron, the law professor from the University of Maryland, said that by looking to existing federal laws that cover stalking and harassment, state and local law enforcement can find a valid model for prosecuting cases. Both she and Wilkins agreed that the FBI was not capable of handling the sheer volume of cases alone.
One recent success, Citron said, was in the case of Kevin Bollaert, who was found guilty on 21 counts of identity theft and six counts of extortion in relation to his revenge porn website UGotPosted. Only by bringing similar indictments, and eventual convictions, against online stalkers and harassers would state and local authorities be able to begin to stem the tide of threats against women online.
"It's often said that 'It's the Internet. It's ones and zeroes. It's speech, so of course we can't do anything about it,'" Citron said. "And that's just a misunderstanding of certain First Amendment doctrine and free speech values.
"The First Amendment does not operate with absolutes, so there are certain categories of speech that we can regulate because it causes significant harm and really just offers so little contribution to the public discourse," Citron said. "And cyber harassment and cyberstalking are made up of speech that falls into those categories."
One of the last items discussed during the briefing was the case of Elonis vs. United States, where an aspiring rap artist posted graphic threats online only to later claim they were lyrics protected by the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court's ruling, expected later this year, could change how cyberstalking and online threats are prosecuted in the U.S. "The Supreme Court is going to come down, hopefully with a clear answer," Citron said.
"I'm just one person," Quinn said. "When you have a mob of thousands of people looking at every single aspect of your life trying to constantly find everything they can use against you — which is how these things work, I'm by no means special there — you've run into every failure in the system that you can possibly find, whether it's tech companies or whether it's law enforcement.
"You've run into all of these things because it's crowdsourced harassment," Quinn said. "Cat videos are not the only thing that goes viral. It's also domestic abuse."
Polygon's open letter from the editor on GamerGate can be found here.