OLYMPIA—The House of Representatives voted 97-0 today to pass legislation proposed by Rep. David Frockt (D-Seattle) that would enable victims of vicious online impersonators to sue their tormentors.
Online impersonation—also known as e-personation—is a fast-growing Internet threat where imposters pretend to be their victims, often combining the victim’s name with photos, the names of friends and family members, or other personal information gathered from the web to make the deception more convincing.
“This is a vicious kind of identity theft that can turn your name and image into a nightmare overnight, and it can happen to anyone,” said Frockt. “Even people who never go online can be impersonated in fake Facebook pages or humiliating personal ads, though they may be the last to know.”
Frockt’s House Bill 1652 would not make e-personation a crime, but would instead empower victims to sue for damages when they have been harmed by e-personation at social networking sites and online bulletin boards, where the most egregious cases have taken place.
The unanimous House vote followed dramatic testimony on the need for civil remedies to protect against e-personation at a Feb. 10 public hearing on Frockt’s bill.
“We are increasingly hearing stories from children, from parents, from adults about how social media like Facebook and bulletin board sites like Craigslist can be misused by impersonators,” said Mary Fan, a professor and former prosecutor who specializes in criminal law and privacy in at the University of Washington School of Law.
Fan’s testimony to the House Judiciary Committee referred to numerous chilling cases of how e-personation can humiliate victims and ruin lives:
- A Wyoming woman was bound and raped at knifepoint by a stranger in her home after an ex-boyfriend impersonated her in a Craigslist ad that said, “Need a real aggressive man with no concern for women.” The rapist reportedly said, “”I’ll show you aggressive.”
- A Tacoma home was stripped bare in 2007 after an online imposter posted a Craigslist ad in the name of the victim that said “Moving out … House being demolished. Come and take whatever you want, nothing is off limits.” People fooled by the ad took everything in the house, including the refrigerator, front door and kitchen sink.
- A Connecticut woman, Allison Pfeiffer, was humiliated by bullies who created a Facebook page in her name that exposed personal details and made hateful and degrading statements about her life and personal preferences. Fan cited estimates that as much as 70 percent of cyber-bullying involves some form of e-personation.
- Another Connecticut woman was confronted at her home by six strangers looking for sex after someone pretending to be her posted a Craigslist ad that said “Married West Hartford soccer mom … looking for group sex.”
Frockt’s legislation includes several provisions to ensure that the protections against online impersonators do not infringe on legitimate free speech rights, such as satires or spoofs of public figures. The narrow focus on the specific problem of harmful e-personation earned support for the bill from representatives of technology industries.
Lew McMurran, a Vice President of the Seattle-based Washington Technology Industry Association, told the House Judiciary Committee that the measure “would help solve a growing and difficult problem.”
“The feedback I have received from members who look at bills nationwide is that this is actually the best-written of the bills that have been introduced around the country,” McMurran said.
If HB 1652 is signed into law, Washington would be the second state to take aim at e-personation. Last year, California lawmakers voted unanimously to make e-personation a crime punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and a year in jail. The California law took effect Jan. 1.
Frockt said the e-personation issue gained momentum in Washington after Rep. John McCoy (D-Tulalip) raised awareness of the problem. McCoy chairs the House Technology, Energy & Communications Committee.
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