California looks to outlaw online impersonation

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

  • Published
man types on laptop
Image caption,
The bill would penalise those who pretend to be others online

The internet has often been referred to as the wild west, where reputations can be trashed with just a few clicks of a mouse.

Now, California aims to outlaw the growing practice of online impersonation, which is often used for nefarious purposes.

A bill, authored by State Senator Joe Simitian, aims to update laws written in 1872 to recognise that "in the age of the internet, pretending to be someone else is easy".

The bill, awaiting the signature of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, would make it a crime to "harm, intimidate, threaten or defraud" through the internet or other electronic means.

Penalties for such behaviour would be a $1,000 (£600) fine and or a year in jail. Victims would be allowed to sue for compensation.

"Our identity is one of the most personal things we have, and when someone misuses that it seems there ought to be some sort of deterrence," Senator Simitian told BBC News.

"In the days when the original law was written, no-one could have anticipated Facebook or Twitter or even e-mail - all of which are ripe for the kind of online impersonation this bill seeks to address. It seems to be that for anyone who engages in this kind of behaviour there ought to be consequences."

'Cyber bullies'

The problem was brought to the attention of Mr Simitian's by Carl Guardino, a constituent and the president and chief executive officer of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, an organisation that represents a number of hi-tech companies in the area.

Image caption,
Senator Joe Simitian is the bill's author

"In April of 2009 I started receiving e-mails and phone calls from community, business, labour and government leaders that they had each received an e-mail from me that was obviously not representative of my character or my values," said Mr Guardino.

"It quickly became apparent to me that there was a cyber bully out there who used my e-mail address and pretended to be me in an effort to make me look bad."

Mr Guardino said he had no idea why anyone would target him and try to smear his hard-earned reputation.

He said his big worry was that those who did not know him would take the profanity- laced e-mail at face value.

Three months ago there was a similar incident involving a crude e-mail that was sent to a local reporter.

The perpetrator in both occasions was never caught. But Mr Guardino soon found out he was not the only victim.

"I found a more scurrilous example from my brother who teaches science on the Monterey Peninsula, who had been e-impersonated in a very ugly way.

"Someone took out a fake Yahoo address and fake Facebook account pretending to be him to terrorise a poor disabled student in one of his classes. It was so horrendous what they did and to whom, but when my brother went to the district attorney and the county sheriff they said there was nothing in state law to help them do something about this."

He said he hoped Senator Simitian's bill will get signed into law to show "that there will at least be a price to pay for these cyber bullies who think it is fun to damage reputations".


While supporters agree the law desperately needs to be updated, critics fear it is too broad and might have repercussions for people's First Amendment rights.

Image caption,
Online impersonation can be used to make serious points

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said their main concern is that the big casualty of this proposed law will be political parody.

But Senator Simitian said he is not interested in taking down people who create fake Barack Obama Facebook pages or fake Twitter accounts. His bill targets those who are "credible" impersonators, acting without consent.

That is what worries Corynne McSherry, senior attorney at EFF.

"We have over the past several years seen a new form of political activism emerge online that involves 'credibly impersonating' public officials and corporate executives for the purposes of political satire," said Ms McSherry.

"The way it works is that this impersonator makes an outrageous statement to cause a press controversy and bring attention to an issue.

"It is important that for this to work, one credibly impersonates the executive or official and I am worried a judge will look at this bill and feel this applies to that kind of speech. The bill does not include enough protections for satire and parody, in my view," she added.

Ms McSherry cited the example of the Yes Men. They are activists who engage in such parody to make a wider point.

The group hit the headlines in 2004 when one of its members appeared on a BBC World News programme as an apparent representative of Dow Chemical on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster in India, claiming the company accepted responsibility for what happened.

The EFF is currently representing the group in a lawsuit involving the US Chamber of Commerce, where they held a fake news conference posing as chamber representatives to bring attention to their stance on climate-change legislation.

"Virtual real estate"

Online 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.

Image caption,
Michael Fertik advises people to take control of their online assets

A number of companies have cropped up to help protect it.

"E-impersonation is the most pernicious form of online reputation harm that we have seen," said Michael Fertik, founder and chief executive of Reputation Defender, with clients in over 100 countries.

"Your online reputation is your reputation, and if you are applying for any life transaction like a job or even a date, people are going to Google you and they are going to make a decision based on what they find out online.

"Your digital reputation is now part of your digital life. You have an alarm system at home, anti-virus on your computer, a password for your social networks and online bank account. Now you need Google insurance for your digital life."

Reputation Defender has created a free Facebook app to show people how exposed they are on the social network and how much - or how little - control they have over the bits and bytes that exist about them online.

As simple protection, Mr Fertik recommends owning your "virtual real estate" before anyone else lays claim to it.

That includes "proactively or defensively" buying the URLs of your name, including nicknames, all the names of your children and the Twitter handles.

Mr Fertik also suggested owning all configurations of your name on social networks and e-mail services from Yahoo to AOL to Google.

"Make sure it is you who is squatting on your virtual real estate and not someone else who could cause you harm," said Mr Fertik.

Given that the internet has no borders, some academics believe enforcement of such a law could be a problem when the perpetrator is in one state and the victim in another.

However, they admit it might have a positive effect in helping change attitudes about what is permissible online.

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.