Criminal Law

Cyber Threats Like Obama Facebook Poll Are Crimes

Recently, the popular social networking site Facebook had a poll asking whether President Obama should be assassinated. The responses were: yes, no, maybe, and if he cuts my health care. Over 700 people answered the survey before officials at Facebook removed it from the Web site. It was removed at the urging of the US Secret Service, which investigated the matter, just as it investigates all threats against the President.

You may not know it, but merely threatening to kill or hurt the President is a federal crime. It doesn't matter if the person actually means it or if the threat is made on paper, the telephone, or over the Internet, like the Facebook poll.

The President isn't the only one protected from cyber threats. You are, too.

Federal and State Laws

federal law makes it a crime to threaten to hurt someone else if the threat is made through "interstate commerce." Generally, that covers any threat sent through the US Postal Service, e-mail, or otherwise over the Internet. Many states have similar laws. A person convicted of committing this crime may be fined, sent to jail, or both.

As you can see, cyber threats are serious business.

Report It

As a general rule, unless there's some special law that applies to your case or you have a special relationship with the person threatened or the person making the threat (such as his parent or teacher), you have no legal obligation to report criminal plans you see on the Net. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do anything, though. A moral obligation to stop criminal activities and perhaps even save a life should be just as strong as a legal obligation to do so. In other words, the satisfaction of doing what's right should motivate us just as well as the fear of being punished under the law, right?

While surfing the Net, if you come across criminal plans or suspicious postings, report it:

  • Call 911 or your local or state police department if a life is in danger or to report crimes
  • Report suspected terrorism or criminal activity to the Federal Bureau of Investigation online or with your local field office
  • File an online complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center

Don't Do It

Think carefully before posting something on a Web site or blog and before sending that e-mail when you're angry or upset. Understand that you may be breaking federal or state laws, and the consequences may be severe.

The Secret Service's investigation of the Facebook poll ended happily for some, and unhappily for others. The Secret Service tracked down the person who created the poll - a juvenile. His or her name, age, and address were not disclosed by the Secret Service. Even though it could, the Service isn't pressing criminal charges because agents determined that the kid didn't have any real intention of hurting the President. The child made a "mistake," according to one agent.

The juvenile may be out of trouble with the Secret Service, but it wouldn't be surprising if federal and local law enforcement agents keep their eyes on the child for some time. The parents, though, probably aren't as forgiving. Some type of punishment is in order, even if there wasn't any real intention to harm the President. What would you do as a parent? Certainly, a handwritten apology to the President is appropriate. So is limiting or taking away the child's access to the computer. And, there are the tried and true punishments parents have used for years: No car or extracurricular activities, and extra chores around the house for a few weeks. Whatever it is, you'd hope the punishment makes the juvenile realize that this is serious business. 

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I don't want to cry wolf every time I see or read something odd on the Internet. How can I tell if there's something truly wrong?
  • I'm getting harassing and threatening emails and postings on my blog. If I call the police, won't they take my computer and have access to my private files? Is there anyway to protect that information and still find the person threatening me?
  • If I report a cyber crime, my identity will stay confidential, right?
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