People who create fake Facebook or Twitter accounts to threaten or humiliate others would be more vulnerable to lawsuits if a proposal making headway in the Legislature passes.
The measure, House Bill 1652, would allow victims of electronic impersonation on social networking websites and online bulletin boards to sue impersonators who “deceive or mislead for the purpose of harassing, threatening, intimidating, humiliating or defrauding.” Victims would have to show that the impersonation harmed them physically or injured their personal, professional or financial standing.
“This gives a little bit more flexibility in the law for people to get some measure of justice,” said Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, who sponsored the bill last year when he was in the House.
While victims already can sue for offenses such as defamation and slander, those causes of action don’t address all online impersonations, Frockt said. His legislation would add invasion of privacy to their legal arsenal.
“I think it would make Washington one of the leaders in dealing with this issue,” said Mary Fan, a University of Washington law professor specializing in criminal law and privacy, who has testified in favor of the proposal.
She cited the case of Laurie Raye, a woman who owned a Tacoma house that was vandalized in 2007 after a Craigslist ad invited viewers to take anything they wanted from the property.
Raye’s niece, Nichole Marie Blackwell, was charged with burglary, malicious mischief, and criminal impersonation for allegedly placing the ad. Blackwell agreed to a plea deal for three months of electronic home monitoring, and in exchange prosecutors dropped the criminal impersonation charge.
The new measure would create a civil action for victims like Raye to take, which could complement criminal prosecution. Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said it is sometimes difficult to prove that such impersonation amounts to a crime under Washington law.
“I suspect some of these cases don’t make it to our office, because it does not appear that they’re covered by any criminal statute,” Lindquist said.
Lindquist said so-called e-impersonation can include elements of identity theft, forgery and cyberbullying, but the bar for proving those crimes is high. His office saw about 425 cases of identity theft last year, of which roughly 290 were charged. While only a small percentage involved e-impersonation, he said the numbers show the difficulty of pressing such cases in criminal courts.
Allowing victims to sue would give them a more promising option.
“Proving (such a civil case) is not only easier in that the standard of proof is less, but there are fewer elements that need to be proven,” Lindquist said.
Lindquist said he would like to see Washington follow in California’s footsteps by amending the criminal code to specifically address e-impersonation.
“I think at some point we should be looking at adapting the criminal statute to changing technology,” Lindquist said.
Frockt said existing criminal statutes seemed sufficient when he drafted the bill, so he focused on civil remedies.
“We thought where there was a gap was in a clear statement of civil liability. That’s where I think our bill comes in,” Frockt said.
Frockt’s proposal passed unanimously out of committee this month, though some lawmakers questioned what role managers of the sites themselves should have. The legislation would not impose any new liability on social networking websites or online bulletin boards.
“I think there’s still a question of what responsibility do they have to protect their customers,” said Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger. “I know it’s a challenge, but I think we all share some responsibility for making the Internet as safe and secure a realm as possible.”
The bill passed unanimously out of the House last session, but lawmakers ran out of time before it could see a floor vote in the Senate. It now waits to be scheduled again for a House vote.
Alexis Krell: 360-943-7123