California Outlaws Online Impersonation Meant to Cause Harm

California passed a state law Monday that makes it a crime to impersonate someone online with the intent to cause harm or commit fraud.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation Monday that makes it illegal to impersonate someone online with intent to harm, intimidate, threaten or defraud.

Senate Bill 1411 passed the legislature unanimously. Under the legislation, "Any person who knowingly and without consent credibly impersonates 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" is guilty of breaking the law-an act punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to one year in county jail.

In addition, the aggrieved person would have the right to file a lawsuit against his or her impersonator.

"E-personation is the dark side of the social networking revolution," said State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, in a statement. "It's quick. It's easy. And it's a misuse of the technology. Pretending to be someone else online takes no more Web savvy than posting comments on a Web forum under that person's name. When it is done to cause harm, folks need a law on the books they can turn to."

In the bill, which covers acts such as opening e-mail accounts or accounts on social networking sites, an impersonation is considered credible if another person would or did reasonably believe that the defendant was the person who was impersonated.

One of the traditional challenges of social networks has been around authenticating user profiles-making sure users are who they say they are. This bill does not help with that issue; instead, it only provides a legal basis for prosecuting impersonators who harm others, said Dave Marcus, director of security research and communications at McAfee.

"This law is not preventative, and is only useful if you need to prosecute a cyber-criminal," he told eWEEK. "It will not make it any easier to catch cyber-criminals."

Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, said his name has been used to send inflammatory e-mails.

"I have long believed that bullies are simply cowards that no one has stood up against," Guardino said in a statement. "E-impersonators are just bullies hiding behind technology. This law ensures these bad actors know there is a price to pay, and holds them accountable for their behavior."

Guardino added that his brother, a teacher, was impersonated by someone on Facebook whose posts made it seem like his brother was mocking a disabled student.

"With the dramatic expansion of online communication the nature of impersonation has changed and online abuses have proliferated," Simitian said. "Pretending to be someone else online takes no special expertise. And at present there is really no deterrent."

The California law will go into effect Jan. 1, 2011.