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California outlaws online impersonation

gavelOnline reputations on sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Google and the like are becoming just as important as offline reputations in terms of getting into university or employment. The internet has been a wild west, where reputations can be damaged with clicks of a mouse.  Well, this Saturday  online impersonation that seeks to harm becomes a crime in California.

I am unimpressed by the people, who think they can get away with illegal acts online and hide behind presumed anonymity.  I think most of my readers will recall these recent events.

Impersonator’s Alley 2010

December 2010 A 27-year-old guard at the Adult Correctional Institutions has been arrested by state police after allegedly pretending to be his boss, department of corrections head A.T. Wall, on a page posted on Facebook. — ACI guard arrested for posing as his boss on Facebook

December 2010 When 18-year-old Ally Pfeiffer found a Facebook profile impersonating her and replacing her photograph with a picture of a cow to mock her weight, she cried.Then she tracked down the billies and charged them. — Facebook Bullies Charged After Victim Tracks Them Down

October 2010  Bloggers from TechCrunch  created a fake profile of Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt in order to point out a possible security issue stemming from the way Facebook works. The interesting aspect about this proof-of-concept attack is the use of an email address belonging to the victim during registration, even though the impersonator doesn’t have access to it. — Facebook’s Inner Workings Facilitate Impersonation

October 2010 Australian singer Ella Hooper has been impersonated by a Facebook imposter. The imposter created a Facebook fan page and pretended to be Ella, using photos of the former Killing Heidi star to convince over 5000 fans it was her official page.

September 2010 A Rutgers University student killed himself after his classmates allegedly posted a video of him having sex with another man. — Student Kills Himself After Sex Webcast

April, 2010 The lawyer for a 16-year-old who filed a complaint against his mother that resulted in a misdemeanor harassment charge says it’s OK for parents to monitor a child’s internet activities, but impersonation isn’t. — Impersonating son on Facebook at heart of issue

Felony charges against the woman who prosecutors say drove a 13-year-old girl to suicide through MySpace impersonation have been dropped – but Lori Drew has been found guilty of three counts of misdemeanour. — Woman cleared of felonies in MySpace suicide case

California outlaws online impersonation

Assuming another person’s identity on the internet and fabricating an e-mail or Facebook account, Twitter account, etc. is no longer a laughing matter. Pretending to be someone else on Facebook, or anywhere else online, becomes a crime in California as of this Saturday.  A state law effective  authored by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, makes online impersonation, when it seeks to harm someone, illegal.

SB 1411: Criminal E-personation (2010) SB 1411 is no longer active. Its final status was: SB 1411 is no longer active. Its final status was: Signed into Law and you can read its final text on the Legislature’s Bill Information site.

Falsely sourced e-mails, tweets and Web posts have become ubiquitous online, and it’s not uncommon for someone to create a Facebook or MySpace account in someone else’s name. If this is done to “harm, intimidate, threaten or defraud,” according to Senate Bill 1411, it will be a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and a year in jail. — Local lawmaker makes sure nobody else creates your Facebook page

The law specifically prohibits impersonating anyone online with the objective of harming, intimidating, threatening or defrauding. Such acts become misdemeanors punishable by a fine up up to $1000 and a year in jail. — Facebook Fakes Become Misdemeanors Starting 2011

From Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities:

“We respect other people’s rights, and expect you to do the same.

  1. You will not post content or take any action on Facebook that infringes or violates someone else’s rights or otherwise violates the law.
  2. We can remove any content or information you post on Facebook if we believe that it violates this Statement.
  3. We will provide you with tools to help you protect your intellectual property rights. To learn more, visit our How to Report Claims of Intellectual Property Infringement page.
  4. If we remove your content for infringing someone else’s copyright, and you believe we removed it by mistake, we will provide you with an opportunity to appeal.
  5. If you repeatedly infringe other people’s intellectual property rights, we will disable your account when appropriate.”

Use Facebook’s IP infringement form to complain.

From Twitter’s Impersonation Policy:

“The best way to report impersonation submitting a web request from the Support home page–be sure to select impersonation from the dropdown box! Once you’ve submitted your ticket, we’ll email you a ticket confirmation with more information. You can check on your ticket status anytime by visiting your Twitter Support home page and clicking on “check on your existing requests.” If you’re unable to submit a request through our support form or do not have a Twitter account yourself, please send an emailto with the subject line “Impersonation” and include the information described above.”

Creating an account on Twitter, Facebook, LinedIn and other major social media and social networking sites got the purpose of impersonation is a Terms of Service violation. Our identity is one of the most personal things we have. Cyberbullying and online impersonation have become the tools of cowardly griever trolls. Critics feared the California law would too broad and might have repercussions for people’s First Amendment rights. But as it stands IMHO the law will not prevent spoofs or political satire.

Related posts found in this blog:

Handle Online Attacks Effectively
Facebook Connections and Reputation Management
Basic Netiquette for Beginner Bloggers
How to remove data from Google’s cache
How to Become a Better Blogger 5: Your Online Presence
Blogging: Online presence and authenticity
Libel: Blogging Rights and Wrongs
How to handle negative comments


  1. What’s your opinion of this law?
  2. Do you think this law ought to be implemented in other states as well or not?
  3. Are you concerned that the law may be interpreted by the Courts in a manner that may have repercussions for people’s First Amendment rights?

12 thoughts on “California outlaws online impersonation

  1. I think the Internet has blurred people’s perception in terms of privacy issues. But then again the universal rule about the value of one’s honor should still be important. Thanks for posting this. To those who are guilty of this, it’s time to clean your act.

    • I agree with you. I believe that many of those who do not recall a time when there was no internet have been behaving like malicious psycho trolls online. Copyright law, defamation law, and impersonation law all apply in cyberspace. What’s needed is for the laws to be updated and for attitudes and behavior to change. There’s a wild west attitude that has to go. Hopefully that will happen without taxpayers having to cough up $ for enforcement and $ for court costs.

  2. I know there will be plenty of folks concerned about the potential, unintended ramifications of this legislation. As for me? So be it. If old laws do not cover this kind of fraud, then this legislation is not just honorable, it’s necessary.

  3. Thank you for posting this in blogcatalog. I’ve experienced a similar problem before and completely back this up. It is eerily creepy for someone else to create a “personal” account under your name and even use your own photos.

    With regards to Ian’s comment – those fall for actors who thrive in the flattery of impersonation. But these things can be very damaging to one’s career – entertainment business or not.

  4. I’m sure it’s a worthy goal, however there are certainly people out there who will say the only thing worse than being impersonated online is not being impersonated online.

    • Hi Ian,
      That made me smile. I think the only thing that’s worse than having one’s personal and/or business reputation online damaged and even destroyed by griever trolls is identity theft.

  5. Interesting information – my immediate reaction is to wonder why there needed to be a law governing this at all – after all, a thing done with the objective of harming, intimidating, threatening or defrauding someone is likely to be an offence in and of itself.

    The ‘odd man out’ in this list is the word ‘harm’ – which is so widely drawn that it could encompass more or less anything.

    For example, if ‘harm’ is interpreted as ‘injuring someone’s reputation’ then this could be a step in the direction of criminalising the civil offence of libel.

    For example, imagine a scenario where someone impersonates someone else and then ‘confesses’ to being a philanderer – that would be to injure someone’s reputation.

    Should that be a criminal offence?

    I would be interested in hearing other people’s views on this law and its possible effects.

    • If you read the history of the impersonation legislation you will find the original legislation was grossly out of date. In addition it did not contemplate the creation of cyber space. EFF was actively involved when it came to providing the Senator with input during the creation and draft stages of the bill.

      In the final analysis, I believe that this legislation is necessary and I also believe the courts will interpret it in the intended manner. Time will tell whether or not this is so in the most litigious and paranoid country on the planet.

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