How Cyber Civil Rights Complicate the Legal Profession

The digital age has undoubtedly changed the legal landscape irreversibly; attorneys are now tasked with remaining competent amid rapid technological changes to best aid their clients. In 2013, the American Bar Association implemented an amendment to Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.1, noting that in order to maintain competence, “a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.”


Ever-changing technology and online trends are certainly complicating the legal profession, and posing challenges to attorneys they simply would not have faced a decade ago. In the last few years, controversial cases involving cyber harassment, revenge porn, and other online crimes have pushed lawyers to find new ways to advocate for victims, even when the laws surrounding online crimes are still in flux. Indeed, to be a lawyer in the 21st century one must be committed to engaging in continual learning and find ways to anticipate how technology will continue to play a significant role in the legal system.


In 2009, Danielle Keats Citron, a professor of law at the University of Maryland, published “Cyber Civil Rights,” a legal studies research paper that calls for online crimes to be considered civil rights violations. “Social networking sites and blogs have increasingly become breeding grounds for anonymous online groups that attack women, people of color, and members of other traditionally disadvantaged classes,” she explains in the article, which was published in the Boston University Law Review.


Citron mentions how a “mob mentality” often perpetuates online harassment, and argues that treating online civil rights violations the same way as the legal system would if they were carried out offline is not going against the First Amendment, as some have suggested. “Acting against these attacks does not offend First Amendment principles when they consist of defamation, true threats, intentional infliction of emotional distress, technological sabotage, and bias-motivated abuse aimed to interfere with a victim’s employment opportunities,” she explains. “To the contrary,” Citron postures, “it helps preserve online dialogue and promote a culture of political, social, and economic equality.”


In the last few years, cases of “revenge porn” – defined by New York Times reporter Matthew Goldstein as “a type of online harassment that involves the non-consensual posting of sexually explicit material – often involving a former girlfriend or a spouse” – have made headlines and created major challenges for attorneys who want to bring perpetrators of this 21st century crime to justice. “Revenge porn” would definitely fit into Professor Citron’s definition of a cyber civil rights violation, but very few victims of these crimes are willing to come forward for various reasons, including the uncertainty of whether the law can protect them at all. As Goldstein reports, “Until recently, few states had criminal statues on revenge porn,” a fact that attorneys involved with these controversial cases have had to navigate.


Efforts made by groups such as the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, Inc. and K&L Gates’s Cyber Civil Rights Legal Project help victims of crimes like “revenge porn” find the legal aid they need. Additionally, these initiatives bring cyber civil rights to the forefront of contemporary legal discourse, allowing attorneys to anticipate the challenges they will continue to face in the digital age. Lawyers have a responsibility to understand technology and how it will continue to affect the legal landscape for victims and criminals alike.


Additional resources pertaining to cyber civil rights and Internet crimes: