Monday, July 11, 2011

California Law Makes Online Impersonation a Crime

A new California law has worried free speech advocates by criminalizing the practice of impersonating someone else online. SB 1411, introduced to the California legislature in February and recently signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger, makes it a misdemeanor to impersonate someone without their consent "through or on an Internet Web site or by other electronic means for purposes of harming, intimidating, threatening, or defrauding another person." Those convicted must pay a fine of up to $1,000, or spend as much as one year in a county jail.

The bill is intended to strengthen the penalties against cyberbullying, exemplified by the case of "Myspace Mom" Lori Drew and the suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier in 2006. (The case ended in Drew's acquittal.) Anti-corporate activists like The Yes Men, however, are worried that the wording of the bill would make their brand of parody demonstrations a legal target.

Like libel law, SB 1411 states that "an impersonation is credible if another person would reasonably believe, or did reasonably believe, that the defendant was or is the person who was impersonated."

Mike Bonanno of The Yes Men told IDG News in an e-mail that "corporations and their political cronies...[could use] this law to attack activists who are truly exercising free speech." The Yes Men frequently set up spoof websites, distribute fake newspapers and impersonate business people to spread their political views. Since corporations are counted as legal persons in the United States, it is reasonable to assume that the new law could be used against their kind of activism.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has called the bill "dangerous" and "not needed," saying that it would limit entities like The Yes Men and "Leroy Stick," the guy behind the BPGlobalPR Twitter account, which sprang up in response to the Gulf oil spill disaster. EFF claims that "identity correction" activism "depends on initial credibility, just as it also depends on prompt exposure," and that the law misses the point in trying to protect free speech with the credibility clause.

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