(The Center Square) – State lawmakers want to ensure Oregonians have the right to keep their personal information private, even if it takes banning one of the internet’s nastiest forms of revenge.
Coined from the abbreviation of "dropping documents," "doxxing" first emerged in the 1990s as a term for publishing someone's private or identifying information online. The extralegal act, usually associated with malicious intent, can range from sharing someone's personal phone number on a web forum to posting their financial information to social media.
State Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, had both happen to him and his family in 2018 when a national reporter based in Texas allegedly posted their personal contact information and financial information to Twitter. He said he found out about the incident secondhand after reading about himself on the site.
"I didn't even know what doxxing was until I saw the words posted about me," Post said. "Probably 99.999% of people have never heard of it either."
Post said the following four months were "an absolutely nightmare" for him, his family, and staff as they spent weeks changing phone numbers, canceling credit cards, and combing through financial accounts.
The incident traces to when Post himself was accused of doxxing after he shared a link with a Facebook gun group to a 2018 gun control initiative on the secretary of state's website that he opposed. In doing so, he also posted the documented names, phone numbers, and addresses of the initiative's three sponsors – a priest, a rabbi, and a layperson – who the Oregonian reported were swamped with angry phone calls.
Post said the incident was an accident and that he never intended to share the individuals' personal information.
The incident saw the Texas-based journalist in question sharing Post's personal on Twitter with his more than half a million followers in retaliation. Years after Twitter took the posts down, Post said he still worries about how much of the leaked information survives online to this day.
Most doxxing cases are unlikely to end up in court so long as the information exposed is within the public domain and was obtained using legal methods. Doxxing can still count as stalking or harassment depending on the context, but most doxxers can expect to escape prosecution.
House Bill 3047, sponsored by Post and state Rep. Janelle Bynum, would allow doxxing victims to sue for damages including injunctive relief and recouping legal fees. The bill includes a two-year statute of limitations and has support from the Oregon Progressive Party and Oregon law enforcement.
Doxxing has become a popular revenge tactic in political circles by anti-fascists and far-right groups, especially among those attending Portland protests over the past summer whose mug shots are often prime material for doxxing.
One piece of companion legislation, House Bill 3273, would ban mug shots from public disclosure in an effort to shield protesters from being doxxed.
"Doxxing became a tool of oppression that forced people into shells of their former selves and even forced families to take monumental steps to protect themselves," Bynum said. "People … are still traumatized by the level of doxxing that took place over the summer."
Phillip Wenzel shared such sentiments on Monday testifying to members of the House Judiciary Committee.
Wenzel, a paralegal who was arrested in August while protesting racism and police brutality in Portland, saw his own mug shot and personal information tweeted out by blogger Andy Ngo. He said the tweet spurred death threats against him and his workplace, which eventually led to him losing his job some weeks later.
Others testifying on the bills worried they would infringe on free speech rights, while those such as Michael Selvaggio with the Oregon Coalition of Police and Sheriffs doubted they would do much to deter doxxing.
"If an individual engaged in doxxing has no recoverable assets nor any applicable liability insurance, the lack of a recovery strategy may make it difficult to impossible to find an attorney willing to hold such individual to account," Selvaggio said.
Cracking down on doxxing and cyberbullying at large has proved an uphill battle for lawmakers in recent years, especially as more data is transmitted over huge third-party platforms like Facebook. Research from New York University has suggested comprehensive online text filters could be needed to deter it.
HB 3047 and HB 3273 are not scheduled for any further hearings in the Oregon Legislature, which is slated to wrap up in April.