Online harassment: could broadband providers help?

julia kukiewicz
By Julia Kukiewicz

stalking isps

"Can broadband and phone providers do anything to stop stalkers?"

According to the British Crime Survey, there are around 120,000 instances of stalking in England and Wales a year.

Victims increasingly find themselves being harassed online or over the phone.

In 2010 the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) found that 33% of stalking happened over email, 32% over text message and another 8.4% through social networking sites.

Can broadband and phone providers do anything to help? Should they?

Feeling let down

In July 2011 researchers at the University of Bedfordshire's National Centre for Cyberstalking Research (NCCR) found that a third of cyberstalking victims felt let down by their service providers.

Just 14.5% of the victims of cyberstalking involved in the research - and twice as many male victims as female - contacted a broadband provider to report harassment.

29% contacted their mobile phone provider.

"Clearly, victims feel there is more that could be done by those providing services," said NCCR co-director Professor Carsten Maple.

The study was the result of in-depth interviews with 353 British victims of cyberstalking.

Victims reported a range of health problems arising from their harassment and, astonishingly, 29% of those involved in the research were diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The majority of cyberstalking victims displayed at least some of the key symptoms.

"We were amazed by how traumatised some people were who responded to the survey," said Dr Emma Short, one of the report's co-authors.

"One of the cases we spoke to couldn't go to work because her stalker was completely unknown to her.

"She wouldn't stand on the station platform in case she got pushed in front of a train as they were threatening to do."

What can phone and broadband providers do?

When we updated this article in 2014 we spoke to Dr Maple again to ask if anything has changed for stalking victims looking for help from service providers.

He told us that, unfortunately, there hasn't been any significant research indicating that ISPs and service providers are offering more help to stalking victims now than they were three years ago.

However, then as now, providers can offer some support. Here's how.

Acceptable use

Hidden away on their websites, all broadband providers have acceptable use policies.

Generally, those policies include a few lines outlawing cyberstalking among customers.

According to Plusnet's policy, for example, "using Internet access to menace or harass others" is an abuse of service which can result in disconnection.

Virgin Media goes into more detail about what will happen if their broadband service is abused (Virgin Media's example is after "making racist Usenet postings").

Their policy sets out a four stage plan:

How often those plans are used is another matter, but you can try.

If they know their stalker's ISP, victims could get in touch with them to ask for help.

If, on the other hand, there is a website displaying content that you feel to be harassment it's possible to find the ISP by using a trace such as (the one you want is called 'Whois Lookup') and email them to report the site.

Blocking emails and calls

Phone carriers can block specific numbers and offer other services which might be useful like caller display and 1471. Find out more on those services in this full guide.

Some providers have specialist departments to help people who are receiving malicious calls.

These lines for the main ISPs are as follows:

Broadband providers can offer help with blocking malicious emails from specific addresses.

Much of the help available is preventative, however.

Stalking victims can take precautions to increase the anonymity of their phone for unknown callers: blocking certain numbers; changing to an ex-directory number or getting a friend to record the voicemail message.

A similar principle applies online, public personal information can be dangerous for those at risk from stalkers.

Stalking victim support organisations such as the Network for Surviving Stalking can offer more specific help.

How could ISPs do more?

In other words, really specific help is thin on the ground, much to the frustration of some support groups.

Alexis Bowater, Chief Executive of Network for Surviving Stalking and a stalking victim herself has accused telecoms companies of failing to take stalking seriously.

"We need the internet service providers to get on board they need to take moral and ethical and corporate responsibility for what is happening to the millions of customers that they make billions out of," she said in 2010.

At a parliamentary enquiry into reform of stalking laws in November 2011, Andrea Barnard, e-crime Police manager for Wales, noted that a lack of regulation for internet service providers was exacerbating many stalking cases.

What next?

The Government is in the process of passing the Defamation Bill which, in its current form at the time of writing, will have some effect on this issue.

Clause five will mean that internet service providers will be able to disclose the identity and contact details of people who post defamatory comments online with greater urgency and without the threat of libel action.

There are many question marks over what, if any, difference this will make to victims but it's an interesting development.

The bill was last debated in the House in June so we expect some more clarity in the upcoming report stage and subsequent debates.

Other than that, campaigners are short on specific measures ISPs and phone companies could take to support harassment victims, however.

As we've seen in the discussion of the measures set out in the digital economy act and elsewhere, policing the internet is a tricky business especially, as in stalking cases, where users are set on getting past online blocks.

For a start, for example, there are global challenges: UK legislation can only reach so far.

Rhory Robertson, a partner at law firm, Collyer Bristow suggested that the EU or United Nations should address the problem.

"The law struggles to keep up with social networking, as the opportunities are there for those who abuse their access to cyber space. Victims often feel powerless to put a stop to the stalker's activities particularly when the stalker is operating outside the jurisdiction of the UK," he said.

It'll be interesting to see whether the Government chooses to tackle this and other problems which could form part of the upcoming (as of February 2012) reform of UK stalking law.

In Scotland a new law on stalking, as part of reform of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010, to supplement provisions under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 has resulted in hundreds of successful prosecutions for stalking.

In ten years only 70 people faced prosecution under the 1997 law.

In April 2011 and Early Day Motion supporting reform of the 1997 law gathered 74 signatures from MPs.

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