04/01/97 - 09:26 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Net users rally for online harassment laws

ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Jayne Hitchcock never imagined she would become the poster child for the movement to ban online harassment.

Then she logged onto the Internet to warn other writers about a New York literary agency she thought was conning her by asking for $225 to review her book.

Soon she was "mail bombed" with more than 200 electronic mail missives. Bogus messages using her name, telephone number and address appeared on racist and risqué sex newsgroups, inviting suitors to call her or come to her home "day or night."

It wasn't a crime.

Nationwide, only a handful of states - Michigan, Alaska, Oklahoma and Wyoming - have made e-mail or Internet communications subject to the criminal laws that prohibit harassment or stalking.

Hitchcock's case has given Maryland legislator Samuel Rosenberg a face to add to the story he has been telling fellow lawmakers for years.

The Baltimore Democrat has sponsored a bill that would make it illegal for anyone to send anonymous messages that "annoy, abuse, torment, harass or embarrass" the recipient. Violators would face up to three years in prison and a $500 fine.

Although the measure got little attention when Rosenberg introduced it in 1995 and 1996, the House of Delegates approved it last month and it is now under consideration in the Senate. If it doesn't pass before the session ends next Monday, it will again die.

Authorities need to move cautiously into this uncharted legal landscape, said James Love of the Washington, D.C.-based Consumer Project on Technology, founded by consumer activist Ralph Nader.

"It's one thing to say something shouldn't be permitted. It's another thing to say what the remedy should be," Love said. "A lot of annoying behavior should be protected."

Some Internet observers say predators may use e-mail as the first step toward violence.

Cynthia Armistead-Smathers of Atlanta believes she became a target during an e-mail discussion of advertising last June. First she received nasty e-mail messages from the account of Richard Hillyard of Norcross, Ga. Then she began receiving messages sent through an "anonymous remailer," an online service that masks the sender's identity.

After Hillyard's Internet service provider canceled his account, Armistead-Smathers began getting messages from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, where he worked. Then she got thousands of messages from men who had seen a posting of a nude woman, listing her e-mail address and offering sex during the Atlanta Olympics.

But police said there was little they could do - until she got an anonymous message from someone saying he had followed Armistead-Smathers and her 5-year-old daughter from their post office box to her home.

"People say 'It's online. Who cares? It isn't real.' Well this is real," Armistead-Smathers said. "It's a matter of the same kind of small-minded bullies who maybe wouldn't have done things in real life, but they have the power of anonymity from behind a keyboard, where they think no one will find them."

Hillyard, who was charged with stalking, acknowledges getting into an online argument with Armistead-Smathers over the summer, but says he didn't send the subsequent messages.

"All the messages she got she received anonymously. She has no proof where they came from," he said. "It definitely wasn't me."

Similar complaints have spawned a cottage industry in tracking harassers.

Lynda Hinkle launched Women Halting Online Abuse, based in Pine Hill, N.J., after she was harassed. The group is pursuing about 20 active cases.

The Guardian Angels, the organization that started out by patrolling New York subways, has launched CyberAngels to help those who complain of harassment. The group hears from about 200 people a week, a small proportion of the estimated 50 million Internet surfers worldwide. One in three faces minor problems and simply must learn to cope with rude people, said Colin Hatcher, who heads the Guardian Angels division from Los Angeles.

"You have to look at what's happening and ask yourself, 'Is this like an argument in a bar, or is it a vendetta?' " he said.

Peter Hampton has been called both savior and vigilante for his work in helping computer users combat online harassment from the Web Police page he operates out of his Fishers, Ind., home.

First he calls or writes and asks harassers nicely to stop. Then he uses other methods.

"I can get nasty," said Hampton, a semi-retired building contractor. "I can have 3,000 people go into his Web site and actually shut it down because the server can't handle it. We can do - let's just say things - to take him off the air."

Hitchcock hopes new laws will make that approach unnecessary.

"If I have to go state to state to get something done, then I will," she said. "I guess they thought I'd just shut down my computer and go away."

By The Associated Press

Copyright 1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.