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.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

New York's 'Digital Impersonation Prevention Act' Legislation Offers Victims Hope Against Online Malice

New York State Legislators are seeking to pass a monumental bill (Assembly - 6238/Senate - 4015) that will make online impersonation of another individual with the intent to harm, threaten, or defraud the targeted person a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment. New York State Assembly Member and staunch public advocate Micah Z. Kellner (D-Upper East Side, Yorkville and Roosevelt Island) created and sponsored the groundbreaking  'Digital Impersonation Prevention Act' that will unquestionably benefit all New Yorkers while also demonstrating to the nation and world the critical importance of laws that protect individuals from online malice. Republican Senator Martin Golden (R-Kings County), a lawmaker known for his unyielding support of children and public safety issues has sponsored the bi-partisan legislation in the Senate. The bill has been hailed by victims, activists, and the public-at-large concerned with the limited amount of law concerning online behavior as extremely positive legislation. If passed, an enforceable law will exist that protects against the rapidly growing number of online cases of malicious impersonation and identity theft intended to cause targets grave injury and loss.

Assemblyman Kellner's ‘Digital Impersonation Prevention Act’ (DIPA) strengthens the New York State's protections against predators who use innocent victims' identities to harass, defraud, or send spam to others. It also makes it possible for victims of identity theft to seek civil penalties from the perpetrators.  The legislation’s intent is clear: while protecting and respecting the anonymity that the Internet offers to individuals is extremely important, so to is protecting individuals from online sociopathic predators who have intent to destroy another person’s life through malevolent online impersonation and identity theft.

According to the United States Federal Communications Commission estimates, as many as 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year: a number that appears to be expanding with the increase of Internet users and society's reliance on the Internet as a necessity in our daily lives. Presently, California is the only state with unilateral online impersonation laws establishing it a criminal act to impersonate an individual online with intent to cause the target harm. Texas also has a specific law that makes it a felony to impersonate someone on a social network. 

Commenting on the need and intent of the new legislation, Senator Martin Golden said, "It's trying to get a handle on a different kind of cyber-bullying. You've got to set some parameters so people understand that you have to live within the norm of society."

The next step for the DIPA legislation is for it be voted on by Senate Majority Leader and child advocate defender Senator Dean G. Skelos' 'Rules Committee'. Senator Skelos' extensive history of creating and sponsoring laws that will protect others is well known, including the senator's writing of the landmark 'Megan's Law'. In addition, Senator Skelos' leadership with respect to online predator behavior includes the championing of the e-STOP law which prevents registered sex offenders from accessing social networking websites, including MySpace and Facebook, and prohibiting online communication between sex offenders and children.

Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, the Chairman of the ‘Committee of Codes’, and a lawmaker who has been remarkably serving New Yorkers in Albany for nearly 40 years will oversee the DIPA legislation's movement before the Codes Committee. Assemblyman Lentol, a former Assistant District Attorney for Kings County, has a long and deep history of supporting legislation that helps the children of the state. 

Author and child advocate Peter Thomas Senese added, "Imagine having an online predator create an assortment of websites, social media accounts, posts, and twitter or email messages all under your name and identity, and then post content on these sites that were untruthful, malicious, distorted, and fabricated in order to cause you injury.  Think your very worst thoughts. Now imagine the number of sites your identity is being used on is magnified substantially. If you think you have swift and effective recourse, you are mistaken as civil litigation has proven for many to be unreliable, lengthy, and sadly, unproductive. The reality is you have a very serious and dangerous problem on your hands, and the sociopathic predator who has acted to harm you does not fear legal retribution under existing available laws. The DIPA legislation changes all this."

If the DIPA law is passed, New Yorkers will be offered additional protection from cyber terrorists since present New York State law allows for criminal prosecution of an out-of-state predator if their acts have consequences for their victims living in New York State.

In addition, legal experts believe several existing state criminal laws could potentially be applied when prosecuting against the offense of online impersonation.

Dr. Keely Kolmes, Psy.D., the pioneer of 'Digital and Social Media Ethics for Psychotherapists', cautions about the potential harms of online impersonation. “This is a form of harassment and the emotional distress may lead to anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances or other disruptions to a person's well-being. It could significantly impair a person's daily functioning in school, work, or relationships. It can also have an effect on someone's social support system if others don't recognize that the individual is being impersonated.

Erica Johnstone, a partner at Ridder, Costa & Johnstone LLP who has extensive experience litigating online harassment, identity theft and impersonation supported California's SB 1411 bill concerning online impersonation that became law on January 1st, 2011 previously observed that, Almost all cyber-harassment goes unpunished, with devastating consequences to the victims, including loss of reputation, shame, mortification, hurt feelings, pain, suffering, inconvenience, loss of business and education opportunities, and emotional distress.

According to experts focusing on online impersonation, the psychological factors behind the person committing such online impersonation with malicious intent can be identified as greed, revenge, frustration, and grievance. The majority of individuals who maliciously impersonate another consistently demonstrate behavior of an online stalker whereas the online stalker/impersonator is motivated by a desire to exert control over their victims and engage in behavior to accomplish this end. These crimes are real and are affecting everyone - individuals, business organizations, nation-states and the international communities. The perpetual and compulsive act of maliciously impersonating another individual online demonstrates behavior best defined as “Cyber Terrorism.

Demonstrating the sweeping problem of malicious online impersonation facing citizens everywhere, California State Senator Joe Simitian, who wrote and sponsored the California impersonation law provides insight on this national issue that each state must immediately address for themselves when he said, "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."

Peter Thomas Senese included, "One of the great problems that exists in the civil prosecution against a person who maliciously impersonates a target online is that typically the predator has limited assets, and therefore is judgment proof - that is, a defendant has no concern over financial compensation of their victim since they have no assets to provide. At the moment, and why New York needs to pass the DIPA law is due to the stark reality that many of these online predators simply ignore the rules of court and laws since they believe there is limited recourse available for their target. So, if a predator has no concern of a monetary judgment against them, then more than likely, they will continue to create an online terrorist state for their victim. However, if the ‘Digital Impersonation Prevention Act’ is made into law, then the citizens of New York, similar to the citizens of California and to a lesser degree, Texas, will have available to them a very unique tool that predators cannot circumvent: a criminal code that does not require for a victim to have extensive assets to litigate over in order to obtain relief, but also a deterrent and tool that could shorten the lengthy legal process required under civil law. The message will be clear to online terrorists who impersonate another individual: your malicious behavior will no longer be tolerated due to new criminal laws now in place."

The ramifications of online malicious impersonation are in fact a worldwide problem and its malevolent intent far-reaching. According to Martin Waage, President of world-renown security experts ABP World Group Ltd., a leading international child abduction recovery services company, "Online impersonation as part of a malicious defamation and slander campaign directed toward an unsuspecting parental guardian targeted in the growing plague of criminal international parental child abduction that is created as part of a child abductor's defense and then used to sanction their criminal act of child stealing is a malicious and tragic occurrence implemented by thousands of parental child abductors each year. We have seen this type of malicious, illicit behavior targeted against parents from New York to Rome. They had to react to the nightmare of having their child abducted while having their name disparaged online by a sociopathic abducting parent in order to defend their criminal acts. And always - the abductor uses the untrue and fabricated online impersonation and slander against their target. In my opinion this is the most vicious and evil form of online impersonation and identity theft - and it's happening all the time everywhere. I urge New York lawmakers to pass this important law."

The legislation, (A.6238/S.4015), will create effective penalties, including fines and imprisonment, for those who engage in digital impersonation for the purposes of harming, threatening, or defrauding another person, as well as sending unsolicited bulk emails and commercial solicitations, or utilizing a contact list. It also establishes a civil cause of action for people who are victims of digital impersonation, allowing victims to sue perpetrators for up to $500 for each incident.

Advocates supporting the ‘Digital Impersonation Prevention Act’ have recently created a petition sight and request anyone anywhere concerned with the criminal act of malicious online impersonation to sign the petition. It can be found at:

Thursday, June 9, 2011

New York State Assembly Member Mich Z. Kellner Announces Legislation To Combat Online Impersonaton and Identity Theft

Assemblyman Micah Kellner has taken a bold step forward on April 12th, 2011 by sponsoring the critically needed 'Digital Impersonation Prevention Act' bill that will specifically make online impersonation a crime in New York State. The legislation, if passed into law, may be used with other existing state laws dealing with impersonation and identity theft. Unfortunately, malicious activity on the Internet has evolved from online identity theft and impersonation related to financial fraud to a new frontier: the malicious use of a targeted person's name in order to defame, slander, harass, stalk, intimidate, cyberbully, cyberstalk, impersonate, and steal the target's identity in order to cause the target grave and serious personal loss and suffering. 
Presently, online impersonation and online identity theft have been difficult acts to defend against in civil court. Factors that make the civil component difficult to defend include that according to substantial research in this area, a person committing the acts of malicious impersonation tend to portray significant sociopathic behavior. In addition, most individuals acting with online malice toward a target typcially do not posses significant assets and so, a civil default judgement has little consquence or meaning to them. What does - and this is where New York State Assembly Member Kellner and Senator Martin Golden's legislation will matter: for those who definantly act to maliciously impersonate another person online with the purpose of causing injury: that person will face serious criminal consequences and jail.
The following statement was posted on New York State Assembly Member Kellner's webiste:

The Digital Impersonation Prevention Act Will Crack Down on New Wave of Online Harassment
April 12, 2011

NYC – New York State Assembly Member Micah Z. Kellner (D-Upper East Side, Yorkville, and Roosevelt Island) announced legislation today that will protect New Yorkers on the Internet—creating stronger penalties for online identity theft.
The Digital Impersonation Prevention Act (DIPA) strengthens the state’s protections against thieves who use innocent victims’ identities to harass, defraud, or send spam to others. It also makes it possible for victims of identity theft to seek civil penalties from the perpetrators.
“It seems like every day we hear about a new and horrific case of identity theft,” Assembly Member Kellner said. “It’s grown beyond hacking into your bank account. People’s lives can be ruined by thieves who steal their email accounts or Facebook pages to use them for malicious purposes. People have actually been driven to suicide in cases.”
Digital identity theft, also known as digital impersonation, has been a growing problem in the Internet era. The United States Federal Communications Commission estimates that as many as 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year. While the major motive for identity theft has often been financial fraud, recently there has been an increase in the use of the anonymity that the Internet provides to harass individuals.
In 2010, a single mother named Marie from Newburryport, Massachusetts, noticed that her son had become increasingly withdrawn since entering a new high school. Marie soon discovered that a number of her son’s classmates had created a Facebook page with her son’s name and picture. The page in question was being used by others to bully people her son barely knew, with the blame for this behavior falling unfairly on her son, who was ostricized by his classmates. This is exactly the behavior that Assembly Member Kellner’s bill seeks to combat.
Thieves have also made use of stolen identities to send ‘spam’—unsolicited bulk email messages and commercial solicitations — getting around mechanisms intended to block such unwanted messages by sending them from the accounts of unwitting identity theft victims.
“Anonymity is a criminal’s best friend—and it’s one of the defining features of the Internet,” said Assembly Member Kellner. “New Yorkers deserve stronger protections so we can bring these nefarious individuals out of the shadows and hold them accountable for their actions.”
The legislation, (A.6238/S.4015), will create effective penalties, including fines and imprisonment, for those who engage in digital impersonation for the purposes of harming, threatening, or defrauding another person, as well as sending unsolicited bulk emails and commercial solicitations, or utilizing a contact list. It also establishes a civil cause of action for people who are victims of digital impersonation, allowing victims to sue perpetrators for up to $500 for each incident.
The bill is sponsored in the State Senate by Senator Martin J. Golden (R-Brooklyn).