Monday, December 4, 2023

Anti-doxxing law could interfere with outing right-wing extremist

Arguably the most powerful weapon of anti-fascist groups in the Northwest is information, reported Oregon Capital Chronicle. 

Anonymous squads of amateur detectives — parts of groups with names like Stumptown Research Collective, FashFreeNW and Corvallis Antifa — spend months trying to sniff out the identities of those they consider right-wing extremists. 

They pore through photos looking for clues — a ring on a finger, a flash of a recognizable tattoo — and match them with old social media accounts or other sources. And then they “dox” them — short for “releasing documents — exposing their real identities, along with a variety of personal information online. 

In May, for instance, a coalition of anti-fascist groups throughout the West Coast posted to their website an extensive dossier on the man they claim is the heavily tattooed neo-Nazi leader of Evergreen Active Club, a hate group in eastern Washington. 

They directed their readers to the phone number for the construction company he works for. (“Let them know they are employing a Nazi gang leader.”) They pointed to not only his home address, but the emails and phone numbers for his partner’s mom and stepfather. (“Please reach out to them to make sure they know their daughter is a Nazi.”)

Even on the left, doxxing can be controversial — some argue it’s vigilantism, while others see it as the most effective nonviolent weapon they have to fight back against extremists. 

But thanks to a new Washington state law, this type of activism may run the risk of getting anti-fascists sued by the very neo-Nazis they’re exposing. This legislation was pushed by another group dedicated to exposing racists and antisemites — the Anti-Defamation League, a national anti-hate organization. 

“The Anti-Defamation League had witnessed extremists using doxxing tactics to intimidate and harass,” said the law’s sponsor, Washington state Sen. Drew Hansen. “I asked how I could be helpful in efforts to fight back against antisemitism and hate, and this was a proposal that they had been working on.” 

Hansen’s bill, which took effect this July, doesn’t charge doxxers with a crime. It allows people to sue a doxxer if they were harmed — stalked, injured, threatened or criminally harassed — potentially winning $5,000 per violation, plus damages and attorney fees. 

Hansen believes the bill is written narrowly enough that it shouldn’t worry anyone whose intentions aren’t malicious. 

“My bill deals with doxxing only where you actually intend that someone is going to use the information to harm the person or you recklessly disregard that threat,” said Hansen, a Bainbridge Island Democrat. 

Additionally, unlike the similar law passed in Oregon in 2021, Washington’s anti-doxxing law contains explicit protections for journalists. But it’s also notably broader than Oregon’s, allowing people to sue for showing “reckless disregard” of the risk of harassment for publishing personal information, instead of just malicious intent. 

“It seems to me it very well could limit what you call ‘research into extremism,’” Washington state Rep. Jim Walsh, now the state Republican Party chair from Aberdeen, told the ADL during a hearing about the legislation. 

Stephen Paolini, associate regional director of the Anti-Defamation League Pacific Northwest office, told InvestigateWest that groups like his are safe. But he said it is possible that tactics like “‘you should call this person or show up at their house and tell them why you hate Nazis’” could create the kind of harassment that could get you sued under the law. 

He doesn’t think that’s a bad thing. 

“As much as I may align with the goal of calling out Nazis, if you’re doing it in a way that’s opening people up to death threats, or bodily injury or stalking, that’s a problem,” Paolini said. 

In Washingon and Oregon, Paolini said, the anti-doxxing bills had support from “labor unions, advocates for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, law enforcement, marginalized communities groups, and many others.” 

Still, some activists worry that these laws will be weaponized against those trying to expose extremists or oppose politicians. 

Portland-based journalist Shane Burley, editor of a recent collection of essays from anti-fascist researchers, said the anti-doxxing laws are “scary” and “irresponsible.” 

“It’s a profound misunderstanding of the problem,” he said. “And it will be used against journalists and activists.”

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