A new law passed in California is making the lives of some online comedians more difficult. Several impersonation Twitter accounts, such as @ceoSteveJobs, have been shut down as this law goes into effect. The wording of SB 1411, however, does not address possible free speech challenges to the law.
California SB 1411
The state of California, as of Jan. 1, 2011, recognizes a new crime. Online impersonation is now included in the penal code in California. The law cites online impersonators with a misdemeanor crime and charges a fine of $1,000 per offense. Technically, in order to be in violation of this law, the impersonation must come with the intent “to harm, intimidate, threaten, or defraud” another person. The law is not clear on whether that other person must be the person being impersonated. California’s new law is modeled after a Texas law that says it’s a third-degree felony to impersonate another person on social networking sites.
The dangers of online impersonation
Online impersonation is a serious legal and social issue. Satire and humor are the most public versions of online impersonation, but individuals often impersonate other people online to harass or bully others. About a year ago, a California resident impersonated his ex-girlfriend on Craigslist, and she was violently raped in her home. The marine was sentenced to 60 years in prison, and SB 1411 was written in response. Online identity often plays a part when people are being considered for educational and employment opportunities. One malicious impersonation can take years to sort out and may hurt a person’s chances when it comes to scholarships or jobs.
Protecting yourself from impersonation
Verifying identity online can be difficult. The internet has long been the “wild west” of anonymity. Twitter does offer “verified” accounts for public figures, and Facebook has tried to create a verified public identity with Facebook Connect. However, it is easy to impersonate even popular public figures on Facebook, as the TechCrunch impersonation of Facebook’s CEO shows. The easiest way to protect yourself is to claim your e-mail addresses and personal domains online as soon as possible and regularly keep track of what comes up when you search for yourself online.