Ever since it first came into widespread use, the Internet has been used by some to facilitate criminal activity. Most of these crimes are transactional in nature - such as buying drugs on the now-defunct Silk Road website or trading videos and images of child pornography. Law enforcement agencies at the state and federal levels have dedicated considerable time and resources to fighting internet crime.
There has never really been an internet equivalent of physical assault. In other words, the internet could not really be used as a weapon causing physical harm. But that may have changed recently, when a 29-year-old Maryland man was arrested and charged for intentionally inducing a seizure in someone he knew suffered from epilepsy.
The victim is a journalist named Kurt Eichenwald, who wrote for the New York Times for decades. He now lives in Texas, and has written, among other things, about his epilepsy. In December, a Maryland man angry over some of Eichenwald's political articles sent him a Twitter message containing a strobe light GIF. The man's intentions were clear, as the message said "you deserve a seizure for your posts."
The GIF was effective, sending Eichenwald into a major seizure that left him debilitated for days and weeks afterward. Mr. Eichenwald and his wife contacted authorities, who were able to subpoena account information from Twitter.
Recently, a grand jury in Texas determined that the man "did use and exhibit a deadly weapon." He has also been charged with a hate crime enhancement, because his attack allegedly contained anti-Semitic elements as well. If convicted, the defendant could spend up to 10 years in prison.
Cyber-stalking and cyber-bullying have long been methods of inflicting harm online, although the harm is usually emotional and psychological. An attorney representing Eichenwald argues that "this electronic message was no different than a bomb sent in the mail or anthrax sent in an envelope. It triggers a physical effect."
Cybercrime is becoming increasingly common, and authorities are finding new and unique ways to hold individuals criminally liable for their actions online. If you are facing criminal charges of any kind, please seek the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney right away.