Online Impersonation Bill Endorsed by House Committee, Watson Reports
HARRISBURG – Legislation that seeks to discourage people from creating fake profiles in an attempt to maliciously hurt another person was endorsed Tuesday by the House Judiciary Committee, said bill sponsor, Rep. Kathy Watson (R-Bucks/144th).
“In this Internet age, individuals are using this technology to maliciously harm a person and/or his or her reputation and then are hiding behind the anonymity it offers,” said Watson. “This legislation is intended to add real consequences to those who use fake personas to bully, threaten or defraud someone else. Those who are committing these acts are planning their every move with the sole intent to destroy the person or his or her reputation and are not just playing a joke. These actions are having real and hurtful consequences on their victims, and right now, the hands of law enforcement are tied when it comes to investigating and filing criminal charges.”
House Bill 2249 would create the new crime of “online impersonation.” Under the legislation, a person commits the offense of online impersonation if he/she uses another person’s name, persona or identifying information without obtaining the other person’s consent and with the intent to deceive, harm, defraud, intimidate or threaten anyone by creating a web page, posting one or more messages on a commercial social networking site, or sending an email, instant message, text or similar communication.
This proposal is the result of a teacher from Bucks County whose persona was faked by two students in order to harass another of her students.
“Since the committee’s public hearing on this proposal a few weeks ago, more people in our community have approached me with similar accounts involving their own children,” Watson said. “There is a real need to give law enforcement better tools in order to investigate and prosecute such cases. However, I must point out that in no way are we trying to curtail any person’s right to free speech or right to create parodies, satires or commentaries, especially in terms of holding our government and its leaders accountable. This measure solely is a means to prevent the type of cyber bullying that maliciously destroys someone’s valuable reputation.”
During Tuesday’s committee meeting, an amendment was successfully inserted to help clarify language regarding the intent of such fake Internet personas and to protect the First Amendment. Specifically, the amendment clarifies the intent of the crime as one that seeks to defraud, intimidate, harass or threaten someone. Language was also added so that if the perpetrator who creates a fake persona is outside the state and the victim is in Pennsylvania, the perpetrator can be charged by police. In addition, if the perpetrator creates a fictitious person with the intent to maliciously harm someone through the online impersonation, the crime would still apply.
If passed, the crime would be graded as a first-degree misdemeanor, the same as identity theft, due to the time and difficulty in investigating these cases by law enforcement.
Ten other states have laws already on the books to address online impersonation, with numerous other states currently considering the new crime.
The legislation now heads to the House floor for consideration.
State Representative Kathy Watson
144th District, Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact: Jennifer Keaton