Commentary

Fake-Profile Bill Could Squelch Parodists

In what appears to be an effort to tackle online harassment, the California legislature has passed a bill that makes it illegal to impersonate someone else on the Web. The problem is, the measure also could ensnare people who create parodies or otherwise mock corporations online.

Specifically, the statute, now awaiting signature by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, outlaws the use of the Web or other electronic means to impersonate an "actual person," if the purpose is to harm, intimidate, threaten or defraud another. People who violate the statute can face up to one year in jail as well as liability in civil lawsuits.

The law would obviously apply when people create fake profiles to intentionally hurt private individuals -- as happened when the ex-boyfriend of Cecelia Barnes posted a phony dating profile of her on Yahoo, complete with her phone number, address and nude photos. (Notably, however, the measure wouldn't apply when people create fake fictional profiles as happened in the Megan Meier tragedy. In that case, 13-year-old Megan killed herself after receiving a hurtful message from other teens who had created a phony profile of a boy, "Josh," who didn't actually exist.)

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But the bill also appears to apply to people who create online parodies of large corporations -- as occurred recently when the Yes Men created a fake U.S. Chamber of Commerce Web site.

Even though the language of the law refers to an "actual person," in California a corporation can be considered a person, says Corynne McSherry, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which opposes the bill.

And, while criminal prosecutors aren't likely to rush into court against online parodists, individuals who are the target of such sites might be all too happy to have additional leverage against the creators. "People who are made fun of often don't have a sense of humor about it, and are all too willing to take advantage of any recourse they have," McSherry says.

Of course, even if the law is signed, the First Amendment still would protect parodists and others who create fake sites to criticize companies. Still, few people want to be dragged into a time-consuming -- and potentially expensive -- courtroom battle about whether their Web posts are lawful.

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