HARRISBURG — Efforts to combat online impersonators, in hopes of curbing cyber-bullying and harassment, are meeting resistance from civil liberties groups who worry about squelching satire and dissent protected by the First Amendment.
Groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation say online impersonation laws — such as one proposed by Rep. Kathy Watson, R-Bucks County — are unnecessary because creators of harmful websites can be prosecuted for fraud or harassment, if needed.
Watson argues that the law is not meant to curtail political parody or commentaries, or infringe upon anyone’s free speech rights. Instead it would target the type of cyber-bullying that can destroy someone’s reputation.
Still, civil libertarians are skeptical, particularly after senators tied Watson’s legislation to requirements for DNA collection from suspected criminals.
Every state has some form of law that protects against identity theft, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Pennsylvania’s is the only one triggered when online impersonation is used for theft.
Watson says that’s inadequate. She points to a case where two students created a fake online account using a teacher’s name, then used the account to harass another student. Prosecutors determined that the students couldn’t be charged with identity theft because no one lost money.
A House Republican caucus spokeswoman said Watson was not available for comment. But in a video posted on her website, Watson said the legislation aims at what she calls “people who make the Internet the wild, wild west. They use it for malicious and what I think should be unlawful purposes.”
Online impersonation laws are controversial elsewhere, according to privacy groups, especially as online parodies become more popular as a means of dissent.
In some cases, companies have sued activists over spoof websites, claiming copyright or trademark infringement, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
In a California case, a school board candidate was sued by a political opponent after he registered a web address consisting of the opponent’s name, then used the site to promote his allies instead of hers. The lawsuit is tied to California’s e-impersonation law, passed in 2010.
Watson’s proposal for Pennsylvania has been amended to satisfy concerns about its impact on political criticism. Now it would only generate an added penalty for someone convicted of other crimes — such as making threats, harassment or witness intimidation — said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi.
That change is welcomed by civil liberties groups.
“You can make a website that impersonates (Gov.) Tom Corbett,” said Andrew Hoover, legislative director for the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “But if you use that website to defraud someone, then it’s against the law.”
Civil liberties groups are less pleased by a move to tack on language from a Pileggi bill that would expand DNA collection to suspects arrested on charges of criminal homicide or a felony sex offense.
Under current law, only convicted felons and those convicted of charges such as child luring, indecent assault or a handful of less serious crimes must provide DNA samples to police. Twenty-six states and the federal government obtain DNA samples from arrested individuals.
Hoover said his group opposes the bill because of the DNA collection provision. The government can legally use a search warrant to collect a suspect’s DNA sample, he noted.
Pileggi and other supporters of DNA collections say they are necessary to crack unsolved crimes.
The move to connect the two proposals — preventing online impersonation, and collecting DNA samples — come as lawmakers scramble to finish their work in the final days of the fall session.
The Legislature only has three voting days left on its calendar before the Nov. 4 general election.
The online impersonation bill passed the House unanimously in May 2013. It’s since been stalled in the Senate.
Likewise, the DNA collection bill passed the Senate in June 2013 but has been stalled in the House.
John Finnerty reports from the CNHI Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.