Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Will impersonators become outlaws?

Impersonation is a noble theatrical art form and a mainstay in biopic movies about historic figures. Posing as someone else has been one of espionage's effective deceptions, too.

Now it's cropped up on the Internet in social networking websites and blogs as cruel hoaxes to deceive rather than merely to create a humorous illusion.

In California, a new anti-impersonation law has gone into effect that targets Internet impersonation—phony pages on sites such as Facebook and e-mails claiming they came from accounts other than the true owners. The cruelest example was of the mother who posed as a teenage boy on a counterfeit website. This ultimately was linked to the suicide of a teen girl who'd been taunted by phony messages.

Lawmakers obviously are fed up with abuses on social networking sites, especially the potential for fraud as well as maliciousness. California Democratic state Sen. Joe Simitian was careful in writing the law, however, to allow impersonations that clearly are spoofs—such as Facebook users posing as Santa Claus.

However, such a law may not have clear sailing yet. In a ruling last July, a federal judge in Colorado declared the federal Stolen Valor Act to be unconstitutional and that prosecuting impersonators claiming to have been awarded military medals infringes on free speech.

If challenged in court, the test of the California law will be whether posing as someone else on the Internet merely to deceive in fact creates harm.

If it survives such a test, the gambits of imposters hiding behind others' names on the Internet would be happily outlawed.

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