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12/10/2008
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Vint Cerf's Twitter Account Was A Fake

Despite the recent MySpace-hoax suicide tragedy, online impersonation and fictitious identities remain a legally vague area.

A report that Vint Cerf's Twitter account was hacked, used for spamming, and then suspended appears to be only partially correct.

According to Cerf, VP and chief Internet evangelist for Google, the Twitter account that bears his name was not created by him.

"Someone created an account with my name and put incorrect bio and other information on the account," Cerf said in an e-mail to InformationWeek. "Someone reported this on my behalf but without my knowledge to Twitter, and they appear to have removed the account."

The suspended account, which bears Cerf's picture, http://twitter.com/cerf, appears to have been used in a way that violates Twitter's rather hazy prohibition on spamming.

"Commercial or promotional use of Twitter is allowed," Twitter's posted rules explain. "There are many companies who create valuable, opt-in relationships with users on Twitter who want to keep up to date with them. However, if you are following other accounts in order to gain attention to your account or links therein, you may be considered spam."

But the suspended account clearly violates Twitter's rule against impersonation. "Impersonation, illegal content, or any violation of the Twitter Terms of Service may result in the suspension of your account," the Twitter Web site says.

Online impersonation and fictitious identities remain a legally vague area. Missouri mother Lori Drew was recently convicted of three misdemeanor computer crimes linked to the suicide of Megan Meier. Drew was convicted of creating a fake online identity at MySpace, through which prosecutors say she inflicted emotional distress on Meier. The conviction was based on evidence that Drew signed up for the account using a false name, thereby violating MySpace's terms of service.

Legal experts argue that Drew's conviction sets a dangerous precedent by applying the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act incorrectly. If the decision is allowed to stand, creating fake online identities, as is sometimes done to ridicule public figures -- the fake Steve Jobs blog, for example -- could become riskier from a legal perspective. In countries without a tradition of free speech, people have gone to jail for impersonating notable people on social networks.

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