By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG – On the Internet, no one really knows who could be on the other side of the screen. But pretending to be someone you’re not online could soon be a crime in Pennsylvania.
This week the House of Representatives passed House Bill 764, which would make it illegal to use the name or identity of someone else online while engaging in certain types of behavior. It would apply to web pages, social media, emails and text messages.
But it’s not like making a parody account would suddenly be illegal. The online impersonation charge only applies if the impersonator was engaging in harassment, stalking, victim or witness retaliation or terroristic threats.
The crime would be a second-degree misdemeanor, and carry a maximum sentence of two years in prison and a $5,000.
The bill also addresses online impersonation from a civil standpoint, which could apply to cases where no other crimes are committed. Should a court find someone suffered loss of property, reputation or money because of online impersonation, it could award up to $500 in damages along with reasonable attorneys fees and whatever other fees are deemed appropriate.
The bill, which passed unanimously, is sponsored by Rep. Kathy Watson, R-Bucks, who sponsored a similar measure last session.
She began drafting the law after two students in her district pretended to be a teacher via email and harassed another student. But no crime could be charged under the state’s identity theft law because the teacher hadn’t suffered any monetary loss.
In a statement, Watson said online impersonation can cause long-lasting harm. And she emphasized that crime isn’t meant to curtail satire or free speech, but to target the type of “cyber bullying” that can destroy someone’s reputation.
“When this legislation first was being discussed last year, stories of online impersonation had not yet become national news,” Watson’s statement said. “But after seeing the sensationalism around college football standout Manti Te’o and his fake girlfriend, more people are realizing that impersonating someone online can have life-altering consequences that can damage one’s reputation and even his or her career. It’s time that this type of hateful behavior be put to a stop.”
The bill is supported by the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, the Pennsylvania State Police, the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, and the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association.