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Little uproar in Wisconsin as catfishing may be made illegal

The State of Wisconsin is recognized nationally as one of the premier outdoor fishing and hunting destinations in the United States. The Wisconsin DNR estimates that hunters and anglers generate more than $4 billion (with a b) in annual license fees, adding more than 56,000 jobs to state and local economies. It must have come as a surprise to many when a November 2017 issue of Cap Times (an online news site highlighting news out of Madison) reported that hearings were underway to outlaw catfishing.


No, not that kind of catfishing

First, an explanation of what “catfishing” is in the social media world. To “catfish” someone is to form a relationship over social media in which the perpetrator makes up an online identity, in order to troll chat rooms and social media apps to draw someone into a personal relationship. While it may seem like little more than a cruel play on the victim’s emotions, authorities claim that “catfishers” often use the relationship to bilk the other person into sending money or setting up meetings that could turn dangerous. The term “catfish” goes back to a documentary movie of the same name from 2010, which followed a New York victim of a catfish scheme.

The bill was co-introduced by legislators from either sides of the aisle and is intended to give police and investigators the power of charging a perpetrator with a class B misdemeanor, in addition to other crimes connected with using the Internet.

So, why is the Wisconsin legislature taking up the law?

In mid-February, state representatives in the Wisconsin assembly unanimously passed the bill to tighten earlier laws governing illegal activity on the Internet, in some cases dating back to 1996. The bill now moves to the State Senate for reconciliation and final passage.

Senator Bob Kulp (R-Stratford), one of the co-sponsors, finds it important to make sure law enforcement has the means and methods to keep up with the evolution of how social media is used today. He notes, “This bill really updates the language for our modern world and ensures law enforcement can combat this growing internet issue."

What will happen to humor on social media?

Many people might claim that the legislation, if passed into law, is one more step toward government intrusion on free speech. The co-sponsors took that argument into account and added language saying it will not apply to people who intentionally concoct a fake personality for the purposes of parody. If the legislation is passed into law, it will be up to the courts to decide whether a perpetrator charged with catfishing intended no criminal harm, but was only engaging in obvious satire.

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