In the virtual world of online communication, things are not always as they seem.
There is no sure way to know who lurks behind the screen, but a law making its way through the Pennsylvania General Assembly aims to make abusing that ambiguity a crime.
House Bill 2249, passed by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on Oct. 3 by a 196-1 vote, would make impersonating another person online in order to commit a number of harassing activities a crime.
Under the bill, "A person commits the offense of online impersonation if the person uses the name, persona or identifying information of another person or of a fictitious person to:
Create a web page
Post one or more messages on a commercial social networking site
Send an electronic mail, instant message, text message or similar communication
Open an e-mail account
Open an account or profile on a commercial social networking site"
A person would have to perform at least one of the listed activities and engage in activities prohibited under laws relating to terroristic threats, harassment, stalking, intimidation of witnesses or victims or retaliation against witnesses, victims or involved parties in order to violate the law.
"Social networking is a two edged sword," Warren County District Attorney Ross McKiernan said. "It's great when it's used for communication, but we've seen a lot of people use it to defraud, harass or threaten."
The bill would make online impersonation a second degree misdemeanor offense. In cases where the underlying incident of harassment or other listed criminal offense is an offense of greater gravity than a second degree misdemeanor, the bill would make it an offense of one degree higher than the underlying offense so long as it was at least a misdemeanor of the second degree.
"People use fake ID (online)," McKiernan noted. "We've seen a lot of it in court and, hopefully this bill will help to combat that."
The bill specifically excludes "works of public interest", such as satire and parody.
The law provides for pursuit of civil damages in cases of online impersonation.
The bill will now move to the Pennsylvania Senate for consideration.