Gamergate and online abuse have officially made it to Congress. Yesterday, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) published a letter to the House Appropriations Committee, asking it to call on the Justice Department to crack down on internet harassment, including the rape, murder, mass shooting, and bomb threats that have been leveled against women (and some men) in the video game community. Clark represents Boston-based game developer Brianna Wu, who has been the target of a sustained hate campaign; in an interview with Jezebel, Clark said communication with Wu led to a "disappointing" meeting with the FBI in February. "This is clearly just not one of their priorities," she said.
Clark wants the Appropriations Committee to add a paragraph of guidance about online threats in a report to the Department of Justice:
The Committee is concerned with the increased instances of severe harassment, stalking, and threats transmitted in interstate commerce in violation of federal law. These targeted attacks against internet users, particularly women, have resulted in the release of personal information, forced individuals to flee their homes, has had a chilling effect on free expression, and are limiting access to economic opportunity. The Committee strongly urges the Department to intensify its efforts to combat this destructive abuse and expects to see increased investigations and prosecutions of these crimes.
Where personal threats are unambiguously illegal and can be prosecuted, there have been few consequences for sending them online, although a handful of people have been arrested for calling down police raids on targets. The problem isn't new, but Clark says that Gamergate — an inchoate movement that variously claims to fight for "ethics in games journalism" and an end to progressive politics in games — brought its full scope to her attention.
"'Gamergate' has been marked by threats of murder, rape, violence, and severe harassment."
"While many perpetrators may not actually intend to carry out their threats of violence, it is clear that the threats themselves have real world consequences, which have been highlighted by the ongoing 'Gamergate' intimidation campaign," she writes in her letter. "'Gamergate' has been marked by threats of murder, rape, violence, and severe harassment of female participants in the video game industry. ... These threats have not only impacted these women's lives and their ability to work, they have the potential to silence female voices and deter young women from entering their chosen profession."
The movement that would become Gamergate started in August of 2014, when the ex-boyfriend of game developer Zoe Quinn publicly accused her of infidelity. A small subset of gamers picked up on the post, saying it was indicative of corruption in the world of indie games and games journalism, which quickly spread to an attack on the idea of "politics" in games and games writing. Quinn's address and contact information were posted online, resulting in a wave of harassment. Around the same time, feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian posted an installment of her video series Tropes vs. Women, which has drawn vitriolic hatred since 2012.
"Intensifying the enforcement of existing law is an important first step toward keeping the internet open to everyone."
Because Gamergate claims no official membership system, supporters have repeatedly insisted that the plethora of explicit death and rape threats is either fabricated, the result of false flag operations by "anti-gamers," unrelated to Gamergate, or matched by harassment of Gamergate's own members. But both women left home after specific threats of murder, and Sarkeesian canceled a speaking engagement in October after an anonymous letter promised a shooting spree if she carried through. More recently, Wu's studio Giant Spacekat pulled out of the PAX gaming conference after threats on her life, one of which was later claimed as a piece of performance art.
Clark says that she's not looking for new legislation, just stronger enforcement of what's already on the books. "The federal government is not responsible for policing the internet, but it is responsible for protecting the women who are being threatened with rape and murder in violation of existing federal law," she writes. "We must not allow the internet to be closed to female voices, and "intensifying the enforcement of existing law is an important first step toward keeping the internet open to everyone."
Correction 1:45pm ET: Due to a typo, we originally said Gamergate started in August 2015, not 2014. We regret the error.