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February 15, 2011 at 5:35 PM

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Bill would make it easier to sue for Internet impersonation

Posted by Joanna Nolasco

If someone creates an embarassing fake profile of you on Facebook, a bill proposed by Rep. David Frockt could make it easier for you to sue for damages.

The Seattle Democrat's bill, House Bill 1652, says that a person who has been impersonated on a social-networking website or an online bulletin board, like Craigslist, can file a lawsuit based on an invasion-of-privacy claim. Along with other considerations, the electronic impersonation has to have resulted in some type of injury to the actual person, including physical harm or an injury to his or her reputation, among others.

"There's just a lot of opportunities for this sort of thing to happen and it can have a deleterious effect on people, either their reputation or, in some instances, economically or physically," Frockt said in an interview. He said at a hearing last week that the legislation fills "a gap in an area of law that is really unclear and unknown in Washington law."

Mary D. Fan, a law professor at the University of Washington who specializes in privacy and criminal law and procedure, said that when someone impersonates another online, the case could fit under criminal laws like those against identity theft or harassment, depending on the facts. This bill would add another legal outlet for those cases, she said.

"Public departments all over are budget-strapped -- police and prosecutors are budget-strapped -- and they have to prioritize and may have limited resources," she said in an interview. "So a civil-suit outlet allows for deterrence in another way -- through the good, old-fashioned American threat of suing."

In her testimony supporting the bill at the hearing last week, Fan referenced a 2007 incident in which a Tacoma woman's house was ransacked because someone else had posted a fake ad on Craigslist that welcomed people to take anything from her home for free.

They took multiple items from her residence, including the kitchen sink.

Representatives from Yahoo, the Washington State Association for Justice and the Washington Technology Industry Association also spoke in favor of the bill. No one spoke against the bill at the hearing.

A committee vote is scheduled for Feb. 17.

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