California bans malicious online impersonation

A new law makes it illegal in California to maliciously impersonate someone online.

On Monday California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the law, which makes it a misdemeanor in the state to impersonate someone online for "purposes of harming, intimidating, threatening, or defrauding another person."

The bill's author, State Senator Joe Simitian, said that Senate Bill 1411 brings California's impersonation laws into the 21st century by addressing "the dark side of the social networking revolution."

"Pretending to be someone else online takes no more Web savvy than posting comments on a Web forum under that person's name," said Simitian, in a statement. "When it's done to cause harm, folks need a law on the books they can turn to."

The law is designed to crack down on cyber-bullying and would apply to cases like that of Elizabeth Thrasher, who was charged last year withposting a 17-year-old girl's photo, e-mail and mobile number to a Craigslist adult forum, following an argument.

The law is not designed to prohibit parody or satire, but some worry that it could have a chilling effect nevertheless.

"It could be used to put the lid on free speech," said Mike Bonanno a member of the Yes Men, a group that has made a career out of parodying powerful corporations. "Our impersonations are revealed almost immediately after we do them -- there is a net gain of information for the public: it is anything but fraud. But those facts may not stop corporations and their political cronies from using this law to attack activists who are truly exercising free speech," he wrote in an e-mail.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation doesn't like the law either. Like Bonanno, EFF Senior Staff Attorney Corynne McSherry worries that it could give corporations and public officials a new way to sue their critics into silence. "We're disappointed that the Governor decided to sign this bill, given that it is likely to be used to squelch political speech," she said via e-mail.

The law lets victims seek damages in civil court. Perpetrators can also face criminal charges -- up to a $1,000 fine and a year's imprisonment. The law takes effect Jan. 1, 2011.

Robert McMillan covers computer security and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Robert on Twitter at @bobmcmillan. Robert's e-mail address is robert_mcmillan@idg.com

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