Online Impersonation Now Illegal In California – SB1411 Is Now Law
There has been much chatter about California’s SB 1411 which makes it a misdemeanor and provides for civil penalties for those who use the internet to “credibly impersonate[s] another actual person through or on an Internet Web site or by other electronic means for purposes of harming, intimidating, threatening, or defrauding another person.” Here’s a quick look at what the law does and does not do.
This law is designed to protect victims of identity theft, harassment from stalkers, and could be used as another weapon against spammers and phishers. Example: Someone steals your phone and gets all your contacts, they open an email account in your name and posing as you, try to get money out of your family and friends. Oh wait, there are plenty of laws already making this sort of thing illegal…Hmmm, OK, here’s a better example: Someone is stalking another person and opens a phony Facebook account in the other person’s name and, posing as the victim, posts all kinds of obscene and violent content all over the web. Yes, there we go! Until SB 1411 there was no law that covers this sort of thing, that’s what this law is supposed to do. Here’s another good example: You click on what appears to be a legitimate link sent from an office-mate, but your colleague’s account has been hijacked by a spammer and you are taken to a porn site.
Another important aspect to this law: An actual person must be impersonated. There’s nothing stopping you from creating a fake identity out of thin air and using it as an online persona. Which is a good thing, or we’d be in trouble. Believe it or not, this website is not run by a group of mysterious amateur pundits all named “Johnny California.”
SB 1411 also says 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.” Let’s say you open a Facebook account with the name “Arnold Schwarzenegger” and put a picture of the Governor on your profile page and then start sending out messages to people saying “Hey, I’m out of a job now and have nowhere to live, can I come over and crash on your couch?”, this would not be breaking the law. Nobody could reasonably believe that the former Governor is sending them a message like that. It’s not particularly clever or funny, but it’s perfectly legal.
On a more personal note, we here at Johnny California are reminded of something that happened last summer. While at ComiCon in San Diego, one of our spouses left her iPhone in the hotel lobby. A group of people whom she did not know found it and they turned it in to lost and found. But before turning it in, they posted “Oh shit! I’m drunk and I lost my phone” on the woman’s Facebook page, they sent a text to one of her co-workers that “I drank so much tequila that I lost my iPhone.” The phone owner was not drunk. The folks who found the phone also took a group picture of themselves in front of the hotel. They also found a frequently called number in the contacts, who turned out to be the woman’s close friend, and let her know they found her pal’s phone. The phone was returned, the nerdy hijinks were taken in the spirit intended, and we all had a good laugh.
Under this new law, had this woman not been so laid back, could she have called the police to have this crew arrested? Could she have sued the phone finders in civil court too? The civil suit might be tough because it would be difficult to prove actual harm, but what if the text message to the co-worker lead to problems at work (it didn’t). What about the criminal side? Would these goofy miscreants have caught a misdemeanor charge for their defamatory Facebook posts and text messages even though they went out of their way to make sure that the phone was returned? On these facts, the prosecutor or plaintiff’s attorney would need to be severely over-caffeinated to pursue a case, but it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility.
Bottom line: This law is probably not that big of a deal, but everyone should keep a close eye on it to make sure it is not abused.
For more analysis on this, check out the article at ZDNet’s Tech Broiler.