California Web impostors beware: You may soon be breaking the law, even if you aren't one of the perpetrators targeted by the state's "e-personation" bill.
The measure, which is awaiting Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's signature, carries fines of as much as $1,000 and a year in jail for anyone who poses as another person online with malicious intent. The law, which would take effect on Jan. 1, would also allow victims to file civil suits.
People other than criminals may be affected by the legislation, Bloomberg Businessweek.com reported today. Pranksters, writers of satire, and even activists living outside the state could be subject to legal action, some lawyers say. Fake accounts in the names of celebrities and politicians abound on microblogging site Twitter and social network Facebook.
"The law is very vague," Aaron Simpson, a privacy lawyer and partner at firm Hunton & Williams in New York, said in an interview. "Legitimate forms of speech could be caught within its grasp. This is going to be tough for the courts to process."
The law applies to anyone who credibly impersonates "for purposes of harming, intimidating, threatening, or defrauding another person," according to the language of the bill, whose author is state Senator Joe Simitian, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Silicon Valley.
the Yes Men: "identity correction"
Online impersonators living outside the state may be affected, said Eric Goldman, an associate professor at Santa Clara University School of Law. "It's impossible for people to respect geographic borders when sending content over the Internet," Goldman said in an interview.
A wave of e-personation laws across the country—New York and Texas have enacted such legislation—may curb activists who use a strategy known as "identity correction," in which they impersonate an organization on the Web or offline to shine light on a political cause.
"The targets of this satire are frequently not very happy, so they make all kinds of legal threats," said Corynne McSherry, senior attorney at San Francisco-based privacy-rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, in an interview. "Activists may feel chilled."
Take the Yes Men, a group of 300 self-described impostors. Last year the group staged a Washington news conference posing as members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They also created a website using the real group's logos, part of an effort to lobby for a change in the chamber's stance on climate-change legislation.
The real chamber filed a civil complaint that's pending in federal court. This was the first legal action taken against the Yes Men's antics, co-founder Jacques Servin said.
A surfeit of Steve Jobs on the Web
California's law "is giving some of our targets ammunition against us," Servin said. Undeterred, the Yes Men are starting a consulting service to teach other activist groups how to stage identity correction events.
Other satirists and jokesters may not be protected under the new law. Twitter alone has some 200 accounts from people purporting to be Apple (AAPL) Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs. Many of them, such as AngrySteveJobs andTHATstevejobs, offer biting or funny commentary on Apple news and products, making it clear that they are impersonators.
At least nine accounts on Facebook feature the name and likeness of Microsoft (MSFT) Chairman Bill Gates. Even Schwarzenegger, who will decide the bill's fate, has about 10 Twitter and 9 Facebook profiles using his name.
Schwarzenegger "hasn't taken a position on the bill yet," said Rachel Arrezola, a spokeswoman for the governor.
In Texas, authorities have shuttered at least one fake Twitter account, AustinPD, that impersonated the Austin Police Department. In New York, authorities are trying to track down a person who posed on Facebook as state Senator Andrew J. Lanza, the author of that state's e-personation law. (Some of Lanza's close friends and staff added the impostor as a Facebook "friend.") "While no malicious intent has yet been indicated in this instance, we do know that constituents have contacted the site, believing they are communicating with the senator," according to a July 26 blog post on Lanza's official website.
Facebook says it bans fake names
While California's bill may be hard to enforce across state lines, federal fraud laws do cover online crime, said Santa Clara University's Goldman.
Many Web companies, including Twitter and Facebook, remove offensive content by request.
"Facebook has always been based on a real-name culture," spokesman Simon Axten said in a statement. "It's a violation of our policies to use a fake name or operate under a false identity, and we encourage people to report anyone they think is doing this."
California's law originated in a request by Carl Guardino, chief executive officer of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, an association of more than 300 technology companies including Google (GOOG), Microsoft, and Apple. Earlier this year, a reporter in California received an e-mail full of expletives, purportedly from Guardino. It came instead from an impostor.
"I didn't want to be a victim," Guardino said in an interview. "I didn't want to be cyberbullied. But under the current law, impersonation isn't against the law."