Saturday, April 05, 2008

Why I Hate the Term "Cyber-Stalking"

On the opinion page of today's Los Angeles Times, Meghan Daum put forward a cretinous and contradictory argument that yet again not so tacitly accepts the equation of common digital practices with criminality.

"Are you a stalker too?" opens with an eye-catching celebrity news reference and the assertion that the behavior of the female stalker of actor John Cusak was "oddly quaint," given the fact that in the "nearly 20 years since California made the physical act illegal, the concept of stalking has become so ubiquitous" that "the trendy new incarnation is all about honoring personal space" and spying on unwitting victims with search engines and social networking sites.

Whereas traditional stalking is about getting attention, about declaring yourself, it's now about remaining invisible. The idea is to learn as much about a person as possible without asking him any direct questions or, in some cases, even meeting him face to face. The idea is to know everything about that person without giving him any sign.

I am, of course, talking about the kind of stalking that involves not restraining orders but Internet search engines. It is often referred to as cyber-stalking . . .

Indeed, the slick materials of many "cyber-safety" parents' and citizens' groups emphasize the danger of "cyberstalking" to justify the use of proprietary screening software in the home, cutting off children's access in public places like schools and libraries to the Internet, and increased government surveillance of the Internet in general.

My problem with this argument is that decades ago I was actually stalked myself, and I can assure you that it bears absolutely no resemblance to having someone Google someone else in search of titillating private details posted in the public areas of cyberspace. It involved a college ex-boyfriend who was violent in every way that he could be violent without actually risking jail: psychological abuse, physical abuse, destruction of personal property, theft, extortion, threats to friends and family. Today it would have all been put together and called “stalking,” but in 1987 there didn’t seem to be a word for it; it was just a series of separate incidents, none of them serious enough for an arrest. Once he left a casual note amid the wreckage of a room full of my smashed belongings. “Just stopped by to kill you,” it said. The court approved a restraining order on him, which was terminated by an unwitting judge who declared us to be a "attractive couple," but -- when the harassment continued -- a second restraining order went into effect. Eventually, my stalker moved on to other targets and even ended up in prison for a short time, but it was an extraordinarily disquieting experience while it was going on and hardly "quaint" from my perspective.

Even as Daum asserts that she doesn't want to "make light of stalking" with her claim that "average citizens" are manifesting comparable forms of "fixation," her trivialization of Cusak's legal claims indicates that she doesn't think he has a legitimate right to being called a victim of a crime.

After all, Googling John Cusack turns up close to 3 million search results. We know that reading every one of them is less potentially dangerous than loitering outside someone's gate, but who's more obsessed -- the person who spends countless hours wading through Web entries or the person who tosses a bag of letters, rocks and screwdrivers over the fence and calls it a day?

When she talks about how "our insistence on applying violent terminology to an activity that essentially amounts to a very nerdy, needy form of gossip suggests that we might be a bit more embarrassed about our Internet activities than we'd care to admit," I wonder why she necessarily includes all her readers in this "we." As for me, I don't take the term "stalking" lightly.

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