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Online Impersonation Bill Heads to State Senate

The legislation, sponsored by State Rep. Kathy Watson, of Warrington, would create penalties for people who use fake online personas to bully or harass others.

Legislation that seeks to give law enforcement more tools in prosecuting cases of online impersonation advanced another step recently when the Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to support House Bill 2249, said bill sponsor, Rep. Kathy Watson (R-Bucks/144).

“The Internet has quickly approached a ‘Wild West’ status in which people can turn on their computers, seek to destroy a person’s reputation by creating a fake profile and then hide behind the anonymity of cyberspace,” said Watson, who lives in Warrington.

Watson worked at the Bucks County courthouse in Doylestown for many years, first as Director of Public Information and later as Deputy Administrator. She served on the Central Bucks School Board from 1985 to 1989, and as a Warrington Township supervisor  from 1994 to 2000, when she won election to the state House of Representatives.

She said she sponsored the online legislation this year after a school teacher in her district became the victim of a fake impersonation.

“The type of damage that is caused by fake email accounts, Facebook profiles or Twitter handles can be malicious to the point that it is now considered a form of cyberbullying,” she explained.

“When teenagers are seeking to have fun at someone else’s expense or adults are intentionally trying to damage someone’s reputation, the victims are caught in the crossfire and law enforcement’s hands are tied when prosecuting such cases. This legislation is necessary to send a clear message to would-be impersonators, who are carefully committing these acts by planning each and every click of the mouse, that this behavior will not be tolerated without proper consequences.”

House Bill 2249 is intended to add real consequences to those who use fake personas to bully, threaten or defraud someone else by creating 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.

A violation 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.

Watson emphasized repeatedly during a public hearing on the legislation in August and again during committee consideration and floor debate that this legislation is not designed to undermine the importance of the First Amendment.

“This legislation is not about attacking the First Amendment in any way, and I believe there is a valuable place in our democratic and free society for the types of Internet parodies, commentaries and satires to hold our elected leaders accountable,” she added. “This measure does not infringe upon that important and sacred right.”

The legislation now heads to the state Senate for consideration.

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