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Online Impersonation Ban Proposed

A bill poised to become law in California seeks to ban 'e-personation,' but critics see the proposed law as an unnecessary limitation on free speech.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation on Sunday warned that California SB 1411, a bill that bans online impersonation, undermines free speech by criminalizing a common form of activism.

SB 1411, which has been approved by the California Senate and the Assembly and now awaits the signature of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, makes it a misdemeanor "to knowingly and without consent credibly impersonate another person through or on an Internet Web site or by other electronic means with the intent to harm, intimidate, threaten or defraud another person."

California State Senator Joseph Simitian (D-Palo Alto), the bill's sponsor, claims the state's existing impersonation law, which dates from 1872, needs to be updated for the electronic era. As an example of the sort of harm his bill would curtail, he cites an incident involving a Missouri woman who assumed the identity of the daughter of her ex-husband's girlfriend on an adult dating site, seeking to elicit lewd responses as an act of revenge.

"In the age of the Internet, pretending to be someone else is as easy as using [his or her] name to create a new e-mail account," said Simitian in a statement earlier this month. "When that is done to cause harm, folks need a law on the books they can turn to.”

But EFF attorney Corynne McSherry argues that existing laws already offer adequate protection against fraud and defamation. The proposed ban on 'e-personation,' she says, could make it illegal to create a Facebook or Twitter account in someone else's name, if there's a claim of harm or embarrassment.

"Temporarily 'impersonating' corporations and public officials has become an important and powerful form of political activism, especially online," wrote McSherry in an online post.

She points to the activities of "The Yes Men," a group of pranksters who have ridiculed policies and actions of the U.S. government and corporations like DuPont through impersonation, as among those that would be outlawed.

(The EFF is defending The Yes Men in a trademark infringement lawsuit filed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for impersonating Chamber of Commerce officials at a hoax press conference last year.)

Likewise, McSherry suggests that online ridicule of British Petroleum -- corporations being legally recognized as persons by the law -- could become actionable if impersonation is involved.

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