Senate Bill 1411, authored by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, confronts the new dangers of social networking websites such as Myspace and Facebook. In effect since Jan. 1, the law makes online impersonation intended to “harm, intimidate or defraud” someone illegal. Offenders may face up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Although SB 1411 confronts a significant problem in the digital age, it has received criticism from some legal scholars alleging the new law could infringe on the First Amendment right to free speech. The law attempts to address this problem through a clause stating that parody or satire is acceptable and that malicious intent must be apparent.
Ryan Calo, the director of the Consumer Privacy Project at Stanford Law School, warns that the line between harmful intent and satire remains blurred. It’s difficult to point exactly to acts of impersonation that are threatening, intimidating or defrauding, according to Calo.
“Reasonable people will disagree whether an impersonation falls within these categories,” Calo said.
Although the bill provides both a criminal penalty and a civil action penalty for online impersonation, Calo believes the law’s vagueness allows for misinterpretation.
“The danger is that people will do something that is funny or controversial that might possibly fall under this law,” Calo said. “It’s not realistic to think that this will focus on the crime that we’re worried about.”
He suggests, for example, that private litigates may use the law as a reason to justify lawsuits that would otherwise be unfounded.
Despite the criticisms legal scholars have of SB 1411, Calo acknowledges the bill sends a signal to potential cyberbullies that their actions can result in serious legal consequences.
He stresses, however, that SB 1411 is just one solution to the growing problem of online impersonation and emphasized the need for private entities to act more responsibly online.
“Laws are not the only way to address this behavior,” Calo said. “Companies could do more to cut down on harmful behavior online.”
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