California Passes Anti-Online Impersonation Law

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California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed into law Senate Bill 1411 which now makes it a misdemeanor in the state to impersonate someone online for “purposes of harming, intimidating, threatening, or defrauding another person” reports ComputerWorld.

The law was authored by State Senator Joe Simitian, who said in a statement:

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

The new law was designed to put a stop to cyber-bullying, one particular scenario would be the case of Elizabeth Thrasher, who was charged with posting a 17-year-old girl’s photo, e-mail and mobile number to a Craigslist adult forum, following an argument in 2009.

However, the law has not escaped the criticism of rights groups, with some saying that it could be used to stifle parodies and free speech. Mike Bonanno a member of the Yes Men, a group that has made a career out of parodying powerful corporations had the following to say:

It could be used to put the lid on free speech. 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.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has also weighed in saying that it could be used by politicians to silence and gag their critics with law suits created under this new law.

The state statute makes it possible for perpetrators to be prosecuted criminally on top of paying fines up to $1,000 and imprisonment of one year. The new law takes effect on January 1, 2011.

Image by Todd Barnard

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