Online Minefield-by Thomas Donald Clarke

In October of 1994, I received death threats on the Prodigy Online Service from a man who called himself Gerald Jones (known to his fans as the "Gerbil"). Jones got into arguments with his other enemies, and even forced a friend of mine to change his phone number because of his threatening phone calls. (The Gerbil harassment I experienced was on bulletin boards and e-mail.) I responded to the threats by notifying the board leaders and by suggesting his dog Lester would best serve the world by being served to a Korean butcher. Jones was barred from accessing the boards under his own name after these incidents. But "Gerbil" appeared on the board later under his "brother's" name of Robert Jones. "Robert Jones" finally disappeared in the summer of 1995 after I suggested to the board leaders that Jones had no brother and that there was a real life Robert Jones (a criminal wanted for murder in Baltimore) who was being impersonated by the "Gerbil". So much for my most recent bout with online harassment.
Sadly, harassment is a fact of life for many who use online services and the Internet. A 1994 informal study on Prodigy showed that 25% of those polled had to deal with bulletin board posts and e-mail that they felt was threatening or harassing. Online harassment can be just hateful e-mail from an adversary. Sometimes the harassment will lead to threatening, as in the aforementioned Gerbil case. Or the harassment could lead to criminal actions, such as in the cases of Mark "Vito" Johnson and Oliver Jovanivic.
A good case to point out the effects of harassment is the Mark Pena case. For years, Mark Pena posted on Prodigy's Rush Limbaugh bulletin board. He was very confrontational. In 1992, he convinced Prodigy that the opposing posts of Jerry Vasilatos were "harassing". So Prodigy suspended Vasilatos's account. Pena then set his eyes on Gina Thompson for an online friendship, since she shared the same political views as Pena. After a while, Thompson tired of Pena and wanted him to stop posting to her. But he refused.
The more Thompson told Pena to stop, the more he refused. Then the threats came. Thompson was concerned for her safety, so she hired a private investigator. After extensive investigation by the investigator and Pena's nemesis Vasilatos, Pena's parents were informed of his behavior. They had no idea what their 25 year old son was doing on their computer. That ended the harassment of Gina Thompson.
Two months later (July, 1993), Pena tried a similar line of attack on Cara D'Amico. D'Amico was a regular on the Sexual Issues board. Pena claimed to be a stripper at an Austin, Texas nightclub called Dante's, and he wanted to explain his stripping prowess to D'Amico. She refused. Somehow, Pena found out that D'Amico was Thompson's cousin and began an even more virulent attack on D'Amico than he tried on Thompson.
Pena knew posting under his own name would get him in more trouble with his family, so he acquired several different Prodigy accounts and gave them such names as Dr. Ruth Long, Rod Sterling, Roxanne Mitchell, and even "Carolyn D'Amico". The "D'Amico" fake account finally got Pena booted from Prodigy when Vasilatos, some of the real D'Amico's friends, and I convinced Prodigy that the Pena accounts were fake. While Prodigy is arbitrary (compared to the other online services) in how it enforces its so-called harassment guidelines, use of pseudonyms on their accounts is immediate grounds for dismissal. A month had passed when the harassment of Cara D'Amico stopped. But she had to change her phone number to an unlisted number and to give up online posting.
Perhaps the most extreme example of online harassment is the "Vito" case. It all started when Carolyn Fleming received graphic e-mail from a guy who signed off "Vito". Fleming's friends complained to Prodigy, but Vito started harassing them, too. He would impersonate some of his enemies, harass some on the telephone, and send threatening faxes to their employers. Every time Fleming's friends told Prodigy about the harassment, a Vito account would disappear but a new one would be up and polluting the next day.
The only way to stop Vito was to have him put in jail. A few weeks before Vito was arrested, Officer Frank Clark of the Fresno Police Department contacted Vito's victims. He then posted a few notes on how to avoid online harassment to Prodigy's Member Help board. Shortly afterwards, another account with the same name said he was a police impersonator.
After Vito's arrest, hundreds of Prodigy set-up kits with individual account numbers, numerous photos of children in sexual positions, and a car with a California license plate reading "Vito" were found on the estate of Mark Johnson of Fresno. To a non-judicial observer, there is a strong case to be made that Johnson is the online criminal Vito. But California law doesn't apply to interstate harassment, so the only charges not suspended had to do with the child pornography found in Johnson's house.

Officer Frank Clark offered the following advice on online harassment back in February of 1994:

In any frontier there are good guys and predators. Very few laws or law enforcement. You must take some precautions to take care of yourself. Here are my suggestions--Take it or flame it, truth is truth.

1. Never, Never, Never give personal information about yourself or your family online!
2. Don't get into online name calling and threats-this is a no win situation always.
3. Exclude problem people from your e-mail.
4. Never reply to obnoxious people, they love the fight and often live for it. There can be no fight if there is no one to hit.
5. Use the electronic frontier responsibly, enjoy the benefits.
6. As responsible citizens remember you are now new settlers in this electronic frontier-how will you help shape your world? If the settlers do not act responsibly with their freedoms- business and or government will be forced to step in and limit their freedom with controls and laws. It's really our choice.

I would add the following:
#7: Never, ever give out your telephone number, especially to someone you just met in a "chat room". And avoid chat rooms dedicated to cybersex. Sex on a computer is as unhealthy as needing drugs to enjoy sex. Cybersex and free relinquishment of phone numbers has lead to tragedies like the recent Oliver Jovanivic sexual abuse and entrapment incident.
#8: If you can't avoid threatening people, contact the board leader if this harassment occurs on an online service. Contact the police only in extreme cases here; most online services can remedy the problem by kicking the harasser off their service. (This does not apply to the Internet.)
#9: Use caution when meeting a computer friend offline for the first time. Visit them at a neutral site, and never visit them alone. If you feel uncomfortable, don't visit them.
#10: Never post onto a bulletin board or Internet newsgroup without viewing the other posts first. Some newsgroups and bulletin boards (called forums on CompuServe and AOL) are regarded by the regulars as their own private club. They can look upon newcomers as interlopers and use impolite techniques to "weed out the interlopers".

Common sense can be applied here. It is best for women to avoid certain sports or military forums. Jews should avoid forums sympathetic to Farrakhan and heterosexuals should avoid homosexual forums (and vice-versa). Normal people should stay away from specialized forums for militias, skinheads, or groups diametrically opposed to their existence. Posting in these situations can lead to severe online and offline harassment.
The online world has changed since Vito was grounded in the Spring of 1994. Online usage has shifted from the online services (Prodigy, AOL, CompuServe) to the unregulated Internet. To compete, the online services now have updated their service to allow their members to access the Internet. More and more information is now available to the computer user. But with all that free information comes a free way to destroy one's sanity and one's career. There are a few stalkers out there. But it is easier to get shot in a forest wearing a deer suit than it is to wear camouflage.

Editor's note: Some of the Gerbil and Pena posts that warranted attention in this essay are available for viewing through this website.

October 14, 1997/BC Excelsior- November 1996/Gotham Writer's Workshop- Nonfiction