A bill to make online impersonation illegal in Utah wins Senate OK

Two Utahns who have been victims of online impersonation spoke in support for the measure earlier this month, advocating for ‘stricter laws’ to hold people accountable.

(Elise Amendola | AP file photo) This June 19, 2017, file photo shows a person working on a laptop in North Andover, Mass. The Utah Senate gave unanimous approval Wednesday to a bill that would make impersonating someone online without their consent and with the intent to do harm illegal.

Impersonating someone online without their consent and with intent to do harm could soon be illegal in Utah, under a bill that received unanimous approval in the Senate on Wednesday.

The proposal, HB239, would make it a crime for a person to use someone else’s name to create a webpage on a social networking site or another website and to post or send a message with the intent to “harm, defraud, intimidate or threaten any individual.” A first offense could be punishable as a class A misdemeanor, while a subsequent offense could be considered a third degree felony.

“I was actually surprised this wasn’t already banned in the code,” Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork and the bill’s Senate sponsor, told lawmakers ahead of the vote on Wednesday, noting that many of them have likely known a friend or family member who’s seen a fake profile surface.

The bill, previously approved by the House with a unanimous vote, passed without any debate in the Senate.

During a committee hearing on the bill earlier this month, several Utahns who have been victims of online impersonation spoke in support for the measure — including the wife of a Kaysville police officer who said she saw her life upended after someone posted a Facebook comment from a profile that looked like it was hers.

In that post, she appeared to express support for the Minneapolis police officer who knelt on the neck of George Floyd last summer.

“He took one less black person off the streets!” read the comment. “I support his actions.”

The Kaysville Police Department placed her husband on leave pending an investigation into whether the woman had made the post. That inquiry, which was completed last week, concluded that she hadn’t, and that a person with a history of impersonating people had targeted the woman.

“Both my husband and I are genuinely nice people and have worked our whole lives building our reputation only to have it destroyed within minutes,” the woman told a House committee during tearful testimony earlier this month. “And we are still having lingering effects. There needs to be stricter laws in place to prevent this from happening to other people. Even though some things have worked out in our favor, we will have the repercussions of what was impersonated and perceived as us for the rest of our lives.”

The Salt Lake Tribune has verified the identity of the woman but chose not to name her because of the social media harassment she has endured in the past.

HB239 requires one final procedural vote in the Senate before heading to the governor’s desk for his signature or veto.