Pa. lawmaker takes aim at online impersonators, but ACLU objects

A Pennsylvania lawmaker and the ACLU are locking horns over a bill that would punish people who impersonate others online.

Rep. Kathy Watson, R-Bucks, is pushing the legislation that she expects lawmakers will take up in September.

She’s adamant about cracking down on those who use the Internet for more than just online shopping and sharing humorous videos — by impersonating someone else online without consent and with plans to cause harm.

To make her point, Watson told a frightening story of one victim.

“The perpetrator, I guess we’ll call them, set up a fake Facebook page for this young woman. But used that photo and her home address and the idea, ‘Well this is someone who would be interested in providing sexual favors to young men.’ And then sent the thing to different young men in the community.

“Imagine who could show up at that young woman’s door!” she said.

Watson said current law is not sufficient to protect Pennsylvanians.

“When they looked at that particular case they were looking at — could they do it under a harassment charge? Some of the way our law is written for harassment — there has to be some kind of financial loss,” Watson said. “This didn’t involve a financial loss.”

Watson said 10 other states already have similar legislation.

“The intent of the bill is noble and important,” said Andy Hoover, director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “The primary sponsor is trying to protect Pennsylvanians’ privacy.”

Hoover said the problem is writing the bill in such a way that keeps free speech free.

“There are times in our public discourse where impersonation is a form of public criticism and political discussion — particularly in parody,” Hoover said. “So one could make an argument that when parody is used for public criticism, that is an attempt to harm.”

Watson said she’s open to modifications but wants to give prosecutors more power than they have now.

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