The Washington Legislature is wise to consider the impact of doxxing and invasions of privacy. But effective legislation will require more work and more thoughtful consideration than can be accomplished during this year’s session.
Doxxing (sometimes spelled doxing) is described by Bloomberg News as: “The malicious posting of private information about you, your family, your photos or other details online — without your consent — for the whole world to see.” The word comes from the public sharing of documents, and the practice is increasingly used by activists across all ranges of the political spectrum to bring attention to their opponents.
In worst-case scenarios it can lead to personal information such Social Security numbers being revealed or specific threats of violence. In other situations, it can lead to home addresses being revealed and protesters showing up at the home of an activist or political official.
In an interesting article about doxxing last June, The Washington Post detailed how a Yacolt man accosted a left-wing journalist from Portland during a protest in Washington, D.C. Video of the incident allowed activists to identify the man, resulting in the loss of his job. As the journalist told The Post: “From a practical perspective, I feel like being unemployable is going to push him in a more extreme direction. On the other hand, you shouldn’t be able to act like that and then have nothing happen to you.”
Extremists throughout the political spectrum are undermining our democracy and our basic civility. But there are questions about how far lawmakers can or should go to bolster that civility.
State Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, has introduced Senate Bill 5881 to address the issue of doxxing. Crosscut explains: “Lovick’s bill would make it a gross misdemeanor to post people’s personally identifiable information online without their consent, if there’s reason to believe doing so would cause them to experience harassment or physical injury.”
To constitute doxxing, the online post would also have to cause victims at least some “substantial life disruption” — an overly broad definition.
“I want to start the conversation so that we really spend some time talking about this,” said Lovick, who acknowledges the bill is a work in progress. “These things are not going to go away unless we call attention to what is happening right now — and some people are getting harassed by this.”
Indeed, it will take time to weigh the possibility of threats and the sharing of personal information against First Amendment rights to free speech. In the process, Washington lawmakers should keep an eye on other states.
An Oregon law to deal with doxxing took effect last year. That law is significantly narrower than Lovick’s bill, including in its definition of what is protected personal information. It does not criminalize doxxing, but instead allows victims to sue for civil damages.
In Colorado, a law signed last year prohibits the doxxing of public health workers, following a rise of online harassment. Other states also have passed narrow laws regarding the sharing of information designed to intimidate or harass.
Brian Robick of the ACLU of Washington told Crosscut: “The First Amendment issues regarding harassment or incitement of violence are complex, and statutes have to be carefully drawn to prevent prohibiting protected speech.”
That is a tightrope for lawmakers. But thoughtful discussion about a growing scourge of the digital age is warranted.