It Was Wrong of an Illinois Republican to Do What He Did – But Here’s Why We Still Shouldn’t Outlaw Catfishing

[Originally published in The Independent]

To catch a catfish, you will have to cast a wide net in the digital ocean. Too wide.

Matt Hancock said new laws will make Britain the "safest place in the world" to be online

Nick Sauer, a Republican state representative from Illinois, has resigned after his ex-girlfriend alleged he created a fake Instagram account using her likeness. The account, she claims, used nude pictures of her to bait men into online sexual conversations. What Sauer has alleged to have done is commonly called “catfishing” –using a false online identity to lure people into relationships. Sauer is the catfish, and the fake Instagram account with the nude pictures was the bait.

Creating a fake identity online is not illegal in the United States. This high-profile case, however, may initiate calls for its criminalisation. I believe this would be a mistake.

The justification for a catfishing law is clear and understandable. By creating a fake identity and communicating through that identity, a person can victimise someone in any number of ways. I can think of several. Fake identities can be used to develop an intimate or romantic relationship with a person. Once the catfish has established a level of trust, the victim may divulge emotionally or personally compromising information. If the allegations brought against Sauer are true, then he has deceived men into communicating about sexual matters that they would likely want to keep private.

Sometimes the motives are ultimately financial. A victim is asked to provide money to bail someone out of a difficult situation. Thus, creating a fake identity is the first step in the infamous romance scams that cost people millions of dollars around the world each year. Fake identities can also be used by adults to lure minors into sexual relationships. This is an odious crime and fortunately is comparatively less common than the others I mention here.

It seems justifiable, then, that creating a fake identity is a first step towards the eventual victimising of someone, and therefore it should be criminalised.

But the ability to create a false identity is fundamental to a liberal, democratic society in the 21st century.

Here are a few scenarios:

A young person may be considering a change of identity – gender, religious, political.  They may wish to explore this identity away from their current social networks. They may want to connect with and interact in online forums that explore aspects of the new identity. They will need the freedom to create a new persona and interact with others without obligating themselves. A law prohibiting the use of false online identities would restrict freedom of expression.

Or, consider a journalist or whistleblower who wants to share sensitive information about government or corporate misconduct without revealing their identity. Speaking truth to power may require creating a fake Facebook or Twitter account. If creating a false identity is criminalised, then they will be constrained in how they can communicate this sensitive information. A law prohibiting the use of false online identities would restrict freedom of speech.

To catch a catfish, you will have to cast a wide net in the digital ocean. Too wide.

Many of the actions facilitated through the creation of a false identity are already criminalised. Fraud – stealing money through deception and defamation – using the real name or likeness of a person as in the allegations made against Sauer, are both illegal.

A better solution, then, is to preserve the right to create a false identity online and instead invest in educating the public and training local law enforcement to investigate cybercrimes. The American narrative surrounding online crime has focused disproportionally on how to protect government and corporate networks. Billions of taxpayer dollars are invested in upgrading computer networks, providing research grants to cybersecurity researchers developing technologies to be used by government and corporations, and funding scholarships for students who will inevitably work in these venues. By and large, these are wise investments.

However, what gets lost in the shuffle are the cybercrimes visited upon everyday individuals. Only a tiny fraction of taxpayer dollars are devoted to digital literacy programs and the training of local law enforcement. If we educate our citizens so that they can better detect catfishing attempts and other types of online deception, we can preserve our civil liberties.