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Avoiding Internet Harassment, Part I

Actually, there is absolutely no way to be completely immune to harassment on the internet if you ever communicate with anyone anywhere—none. Some random creep could, at some point, target you—because he doesn’t like your email address, or your views on a television show, or where you work. It doesn’t really matter where you’re hanging out on the net, or whether you ever express any opinion about anything—creeps are creeps. If you just surfed web sites without any personal information anywhere in your web browser and never chatted, used email, or posted in any kind of forum you’d be unlikely to run across any harassment—but you’d be missing out on much of the value of the internet.

There are, however, some kinds of communication that make it easier to annoy you than others. The following are some of the things I’ve learned over the past several years of both dealing with harassment myself and helping others who are being harassed.

This started as one article and turned out to be really, really long, so I’m splitting it up into several parts.

First—guestbooks. Yes, those cutesy CGI things that were cool back in 1995 or 1996. If you put a guestbook on your web site, it is very easy for someone to write nasty things in it that you really don’t want associated with you or your web site. There are few reasons to have a guestbook, really, so just delete it. If you insist on having a guestbook, make sure that you can delete entries if necessary, and it is preferable to be able to track the IP addresses of the people who make entries. If possible, block access to the guestbook from services like Anonymizer.

Second, chat rooms in general. Unless you chat only in completely private areas known only to you and those with whom you currently wish to chat, at some point someone will come into the chat room you’re using and be rude, or nasty, or offensive. Some will offend you inadvertently. Some will be deliberately trying to annoy or upset you or someone else in the room. Limit yourself to well-policed chat areas or accept that this kind of thing can and will happen. If someone threatens you in a chat area, you should certainly report it to their ISP, to whoever runs the chat server, and to law enforcement personnel. (You’ll need time and date-stamped chat logs to file that report, and if other people were in the chat room at the time, it would be helpful if you could get those people to swear out affidavits, as well).

If someone is simply annoying you, that’s just part of being on the net. Don’t respond—that’s what they want. If it’s a reasonably "safe" chat area, the system operator should be able and willing to permanently ban anyone who is truly harassing people on his system. If the system operator cannot or will not do that, find another place to chat.

In part two of this series we’ll talk about instant messaging programs. In part three we’ll discuss unmoderated forums.

Originally published December 12, 2000

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