Stalking laws have been in existence in many jurisdictions for years; however, most stalking laws, as written, do not apply to acts of cyberstalking. As a result, many jurisdictions have enacted, or have proposed, cyberstalking laws to deal with the issues presented in today's digital age. Although cyberstalking is a relatively new crime, countries such as the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom have enacted cyberstalking laws. In addition, many states within the United States have enacted state laws making cyberstalking a state crime.
The definition of cyberstalking varies by jurisdiction. As a rule, however, the definition involves using the internet or another form of electronic communication to repeatedly and intentionally harass, threaten, or harm another person, group, or organization. Cyberstalking is generally distinguished from cyberbullying by the age of the perpetrator and victim. Both the perpetrator and victim of cyberbullying are generally minors, while cyberstalking is usually committed by an adult.
A victim of cyberstalking can suffer serious emotional trauma. The stalker may makes threats via email, the internet, or even post them on social networking websites or chatrooms. A stalker may also obtain private, personal information about the victim and use it against him or her by creating fake profiles online or by purchasing items over the internet with the victim's own account that may embarrass or scare the victim. Cyberstalking laws make behaviors such as these illegal.
Some countries, such as Australia and the United Kingdom, have created cyberstalking laws by including provisions within general anti-stalking laws that address stalking by electronic or technological means. Within the United States, the federal government covers cyberstalking in the Communications Decency Act. A violations of the act are punishable by a fine and/or up to two years in prison.
Many states in the United States have also enacted, or are considering, cyberstalking laws. In most cases, cyberstalking laws are incorporated under recent changes to general harassment or general stalking statutes. Texas, however, enacted separate legislation through the Stalking by Electronic Communications Act of 2001.
Stalking and harassment laws in general can vary widely by jurisdiction, as can the potential punishments. As a rule, harassment statutes make a violation of the statute a misdemeanor, while stalking laws may be either a misdemeanor or felony. Cyberstalking, therefore, may be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony depending on the jurisdiction. In addition, the more serious the threat, and/or the more egregious the behavior by the perpetrator, the more likely that the crime will be considered a felony and, therefore, punishable by more than a year in prison in most cases.