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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Colorado bans doxing of public health workers amid rise in online harassment

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) signed a bill on Tuesday making it illegal to share the personal information of public health workers and their families online for the purposes of harassment. (David Zalubowski/AP)
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Amid concerns about leading her Colorado county’s public health response in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic last summer, Emily Brown had another worry: whom she might run into at the grocery store.

She was the target of a fearsome Facebook post referencing “bodies swinging from trees.” But when she sought protection, local leaders in Rio Grande County instead removed her as head of the county’s public health department.

“I’ve been surprised at who professes that vitriol so vocally on platforms like social media,” she told The Washington Post in June.

Seeking to address the mounting online harassment endured by health workers across the state during the pandemic, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) signed a bill Tuesday making it illegal to post personal information about health workers, officials and their families that threatens their safety.

“What they have been through this last year is absolutely extraordinary,” Polis said before he signed the bill. “The work that’s been called upon them, the way they have risen to the occasion and the piece that this bill addresses, which is some of the doxing and the targeting.”

He added, “You are doing your job as public health officials, and you should not be subject to this kind of online targeting at home, at work.”

The law, which took effect immediately, makes doxing — or sharing a person’s private information such as an address or phone number — a misdemeanor. Violators could face up to 18 months in jail and a $5,000 fine.

Across the country, workers on the front lines of the pandemic have reported receiving threatening calls and vandalism at their workplaces and homes for being the messengers about masking and other public health precautions. Despite a marked rise in bullying of health-care workers globally, officials acknowledge rampant reports are only the “tip of the iceberg.”

‘This is how we treat each other? This is who we are?’

At a time when the health-care workforce is most critically needed, some have lost their jobs or quit over intensifying pressure compounded by the politicization of some measures. Theresa Anselmo, former executive director of the Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials, previously told The Post that 80 percent of the coalition’s members had reported being threatened and more than that were at risk of termination or lost funding.

“It’s exhausting to be contradicted and argued with and devalued and demoralized all the time, and I think that’s what you’re seeing around the country,” Anselmo said. “We’ve seen from the top down the federal government is pitting public health against freedom, and to set up that false dichotomy is really a disservice to the men and women who have dedicated their lives … to helping people.”

Some public health officials testified before lawmakers considering the legislation to share their experiences, including demonstrators picketing homes and vandals damaging offices, said Sarah Lampe, the coalition’s interim executive director. Despite conversations with the state’s attorney general, little could be done to prosecute people who shared their private information online, Lampe said.

Doxing is deployed as a concerted effort by a small number of aggressors to intimidate reporters, doctors and pro-vaccine advocates and make them believe a virtual mob is rallying against them, Center for Countering Digital Hate CEO Imran Ahmed said. Trolling groups that the center monitors like those who subscribe to debunked anti-vaccine theories have increasingly coordinated doxing attacks on social media and through blog posts.

“It’s designed to silence voices,” Ahmed said. “It’s designed to terrorize.”

However, with laws such as the Colorado one and greater scrutiny — especially as lawmakers have doubled down on fringe groups since the Jan. 6 Capitol riot — individuals who hide behind screens could face graver consequences, Ahmed said.

“People’s anonymity is actually a false shroud that gives them confidence that they shouldn’t have,” he said. “They should not think that using the silly name is going to prevent them from facing criminal justice actions.”

The Colorado bill’s co-sponsor, state Rep. Yadira Caraveo (D), said during the signing that she began discussing the legislation when news reports surfaced about the stresses health-care workers were facing.

“This is an especially important workforce all the time, but especially in the middle of the pandemic,” said Caraveo, a pediatrician. “They need to be focusing on what their work is, not dealing with threats and acts of vandalism.”

Stress on the front lines of covid-19

Six in 10 health-care workers said their mental health has suffered from coronavirus-related worries, including fears that they would become infected themselves, according to a nationwide Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted earlier this year.

Colorado’s protection against doxing already extends to law enforcement officers or welfare workers.

Although there is no federal law explicitly criminalizing doxing, some states have considered legislation this year, as the dissemination of personal information has become increasingly weaponized by people hiding behind anonymous online accounts.

Legislators in Nevada, West Virginia and Oregon have considered bills. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) signed a bill in April to protect police officers from being doxed, although critics argue the law is overly broad and would put people at risk of jail time if they share any personally identifiable information like a photo of an officer.

State lawmakers and public health officials this week hailed the legislation as vital in the face of unprecedented threats against front-line workers.

In the midst of relentless backlash over shutdowns enforced by county and state officials in Colorado, John Douglas, the director of Tri-County Health, the state’s largest public health department, was doxed: His home address was shared online, Colorado Politics reported.

As a precaution, he stacked anatomy textbooks over a small window to block the view into his home office.

“It has been a trying year,” he told Polis before the bill signing.

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