As of January 1, 2011, it is a misdemeanor in California to maliciously impersonate another individual online, punishable by fines up to $1,000 and/or up to a year in jail. The California legislature passed the new law, SB 1411, in response to growing concern over cyber-harassment and cyber-bullying — according to the Pew Research Center, 32% of all online teens have been the targets of persistent cyber-bullying, and several high-profile cases made headlines this year.
Courts previously considered online impersonation a type of identity theft. However, because online impersonation does not typically involve money, most perpetrators were judgment proof. And District Attorneys, unsure of their legal standing, were unwilling to invest in prosecuting. With no legal recourse, victims were unable to stop, deter, or create consequences for impersonation attacks.
Online impersonation attacks can have far reaching, detrimental effects if others don’t recognize that the individual is being impersonated; as Shakespeare wrote, “he that filches from me my good name, robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.” San Francisco lawyer Erica Johnstone told ZDNet that “SB 1411 is important because it makes impersonation a crime, creates a civil cause of action victims can use to defend themselves against alleged impersonators, and provides for attorney’s fees, which are critical in terms of extending protection to those who may be otherwise unable to afford to enforce their rights.”
The text of the bill states that it “would provide that any person who knowingly and without consent credibly impersonates another actual person through or on an Internet Web site or by other electronic means, as specified, for purposes of harming, intimidating, threatening, or defrauding another person is guilty of a misdemeanor. The bill would, in addition to the specified criminal penalties, authorize a person who suffers damage or loss to bring a civil action against any person who violates that provision, as specified.”
The bill does not address first amendment issues, which will have to be worked out in court. Of key concern to some commentators is its effect on political parody and satire. Other commentators wonder if enforcement of the law could be a problem when the perpetrator is in one state and the victim in another. Regardless, the law is an important intervention into harassment, the right to privacy, identity theft, impersonation, and defamation online.
- California outlaws online impersonation (onecoolsitebloggingtips.com)
- Facebook Fakes Become Misdemeanors Starting 2011 (allfacebook.com)
- Could Fake Steve Jobs Go to Jail? (cloudave.com)