Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's signature on a bill passed by state legislators last month would make it illegal to impersonate someone on Facebook or Twitter there.
Senate Bill 1411 [ download PDF ] would make maliciously impersonating someone else online a misdemeanor. Calif. State Sen. Joe Simitian, who authored the bill, said it focuses on stopping the misuse of e-mail and social networking.
"In the age of the Internet, pretending to be someone else is as easy as using their name to create a new email account," said Simitian, in a recent statement. "When that is done to cause harm, folks need a law on the books they can turn to."
In 2009, for example, someone falsely created a Twitter account under the Dalai Lama's [http://blog.twitter.com/2009/02/lesson-in-nothingness.html ] name. However, it was only discovered to be an impersonation and pulled after it had gained 20,000 followers. Professional basketball player Shaquille O'Neal also was impersonated on Twitter in 2009.
The bill under consideration in California, though, isn't based solely on the impersonation. The bill specifies that the impersonation must be done with the intent to harm, intimidate, threaten or defraud another person. And that, according to Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, could take a lot of the teeth out of this if it becomes a law. "I think a weakness in the California law is the requirement to show intent to harm, intimidate, threaten or defraud another person," said Olds.
"It's damn hard to prove intent and, even if the motivations behind the impersonation aren't malicious, there could still be quite a bit of damage done to the reputation of the person being impersonated."
If the part about showing intent was taken out of the bill, it would make for a stronger law, Olds noted.
"In my mind, if you impersonate another living or dead person in a substantive way, then you're wrong and by the very act of trying to take on someone else's persona you prove bad intent," he added. "While some may say the law is complete crap, I disagree. I think it's only somewhat crappy, due to the loophole for intent... However, the bill does give victims more ability to sue for compensation, which is a good thing."
If the bill passes, California won't be the first state to take this step. New York and Texas have made online impersonation against the law.