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At the federal level, there are laws that address online abuse, including stalking, interstate threats, harassment via telecommunications, hacking, and identity theft.

Federal laws apply to cyber crimes committed across state lines or using a channel of interstate communication (such as telephones or the internet). The principal federal laws in this area prohibit:

  • Using the internet to severely harass or stalk someone
  • Making threats across state lines
  • Making harassing or threatening phone calls or sending harassing or threatening messages across state lines
  • Computer hacking
  • Identity theft

Below, we summarize:

  1. How to report federal crimes, which will generally involve working with the FBI;
  2. The key federal laws (as listed above) that may apply to online abuse; and
  3. How federal copyright law may be relevant for pursuing legal action against online abuse in civil court.

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How to Report

Key Federal Laws

Copyright Law

How to Report Online Abuse at the Federal Level

Deciding whether to report online abuse to the federal government and/or to local law enforcement can be confusing and intimidating.

If you feel that online abuse has put you or your family in immediate danger, contact local law enforcement. If the online abuse you are experiencing involves an intimate partner based locally and/or involves people you know to be local, it may be more effective to start by reporting to local law enforcement. Furthermore, contacting local law enforcement to file a report of the online abuse you’re experiencing creates a paper trail that can also be very useful should you decide to report online abuse at the federal level. The local police precinct will take a report of your complaint and can refer you to the appropriate federal agency. You can learn more about involving local law enforcement when facing online abuse in this Field Manual.

Some severely abusive tactics (such as stalking, hacking, and threats) may be considered a federal crime. If you are experiencing severe online abuse, you may decide to report these incidents to local law enforcement and to the federal government. Here is a rundown of different categories of cyber crime and which federal agency to contact. You can report these crimes to your local FBI field office and/or the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). The IC3 can review a complaint and refer it to the appropriate law enforcement agency. However, one of the main purposes for the IC3 is for federal law enforcers to monitor trends and repeat offenders.

Keep in mind, however, that federal law enforcement only opens cases for extreme cybercrimes. In fact, they often do not respond to IC3 complaints. Cyberstalking cases require very extreme and ongoing harm to the victims for federal intervention. Rarely will they take cases involving a retaliatory intimate partner, for example, unless local law enforcement has given up.

Key Federal Criminal Laws

At the federal level, there are laws specifically focused on cyber crimes, including cyberstalking, interstate cyber threats and extortion, harassing or threatening a person via a telecommunications device, computer hacking, and identity theft. All of these are outlined in the table below.

Furthermore, some federal laws focused on stalking and harassment more broadly have been amended to include language addressing the use of electronic forms of communication (ie, online or cyber harassment). The federal stalking statute, for example, has been amended to include the use of “any interactive computer service or electronic communication service . . . to engage in a course of conduct that . . . causes, attempts to cause, or would be reasonably expected to cause substantial emotional distress” to the targeted person or persons.”

Law Code Description What does it prohibit? Who does it penalize?  What are its penalties? 
18 U.S.C. § 2261A This law prohibits using the internet to severely harass or stalk someone. This law penalizes anyone who uses a channel of interstate commerce to engage in a course of conduct that causes substantial emotional distress to a person or places that person in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury—for themselves or for a member of their immediate family or spouse/intimate partner.

NOTE: “Interstate” commerce includes electronic communication services, such as the internet. This law does not require that the person who engages in such a course of conduct (ie, the abuser) be in a different state from the person who suffers emotional distress or fear as a result of the conduct (ie, the target).

Penalties include:

  • A fine
  • Imprisonment for not more than five years
  • Longer terms of imprisonment if death or injury results
18 U.S.C. § 875 This law prohibits making threats across state lines. This law penalizes anyone who transmits the following via interstate communication, including: demands or requests for ransom, extortion, threats to kidnap or injure another, or threats to injure the property or reputation of another.

“Interstate” communication is communication that travels across state lines via, for example, email and the internet.

Penalties include:

  • A fine
  • Imprisonment for minimum of two years
47 U.S.C. § 223 This law prohibits making harassing or threatening phone calls or sending harassing or threatening messages across state lines. This law prohibits the transmission of obscene messages via a telecommunications device across state lines (such as telephone and email). It also prohibits using such devices with intent to abuse, threaten, or harass a specific person.

However, if the defendant can prove that they solely provided access or connection to a system or network that facilitated such transmission, rather than directly creating and transmitting the message, the defendant is not likely to be found guilty of violating this law.

Penalties include:

  • A fine
  • Imprisonment for not more than two years
18 U.S.C. § 1030

(ie, Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA))

This law prohibits computer hacking. This law prohibits knowingly accessing without authorization or consent a protected computer (a nonpublic computer that is involved in interstate commerce or communication) to obtain information, including for purposes of extortion or threat to cause damage. A computer is involved in interstate commerce or communication if it is connected to the internet. Penalties include:

  • Imprisonment for not more than one year and a fine
  • Imprisonment for not more than five years if the offense is committed for purposes of private financial gain

Victims can also sue in civil court.

18 U.S.C. § 1028 This law prohibits identity theft. This law prohibits knowingly and without lawful authority using another person’s identification documents. It also prohibits knowingly transferring such information or documents to another, as well as possessing or trafficking in such materials. Penalties include:

  • A fine
  • Imprisonment for not more than fifteen years

Copyright Law

Individuals experiencing online abuse through imagery, including the distribution of nonconsensual intimate images, may have multiple avenues available to seek legal recourse. Many states currently have laws criminalizing the distribution of nonconsensual intimate imagery. While there are currently no laws criminalizing the distribution of nonconsensual intimate imagery at the federal level, copyright law (which is found at the federal level) can be useful in such cases.

If a victim owns the copyright to an image of them that is being used in an abusive context, the victim can sue the person who shared the image for copyright infringement. Victims automatically possess the copyright of selfies (since they took the photo/video), and may be able to obtain copyright protection even if someone else captured the image.

Victims can also use the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to demand that websites immediately take down images violating copyright law; CopyByte has a free DMCA takedown service for victims of nonconsensual intimate imagery.

Victims should be aware, however, that using copyright law to address abusive imagery can be expensive and can have the unintended consequence of drawing more attention to material the victim hopes to keep private. Without My Consent has an excellent guide to using copyright law to address abusive imagery.

Further Reading

PEN America is deeply grateful to Covington & Burling LLP and C.A. Goldberg, PLLC Victims’ Rights Law Firm for providing pro bono feedback and insights on legal considerations for people facing online abuse.

IMPORTANT: THE INFORMATION PROVIDED ON THIS WEBPAGE IS OFFERED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. THE INFORMATION DOES NOT, AND IS NOT INTENDED TO, CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE, NOR IS IT INTENDED TO REPLACE THE ASSISTANCE OF A LAWYER OR LAW ENFORCEMENT.