A new law that will go into effect on Jan. 1 could bring online impersonators heavy fines or even jail time.
According to SB 1411 -- authored by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and signed into law in late September by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- anyone who assumes the identity of another person to intentionally harm, intimidate, threaten or defraud may be charged with a misdemeanor.
Offenders could face a fine of up to $1,000 and or spend up to a year in jail, the bill said.
The law will also allow victims to sue for compensation in civil court, Simitian said.
Simitian called the act of making phony pages "the dark side of the social networking revolution." People can easily use Facebook or Twitter, e-mail, and Web forums to harass or embarrass others, or in some cases even endanger another person's life, he said.
"This takes no special expertise," Simitian said. "Anyone can put up a Facebook page and misuse someone else's name and identity."
Online impersonators or "e-personators" have been known to send obscene e-mails or post invitations on adult sites while pretending to be someone else.
Simitian said he hopes the law will act as a deterrent, but also give victims recourse.
The legislation was influenced in part by Silicon Valley Leadership Group President Carl Guardino, who earlier this year recounted three different instances where either he or someone he knew had been a victim of online impersonators.
Simitian said Guardino sought help from local police and the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office and they told him there really wasn't anything they could do legally.
"Here we are in the heart of Silicon Valley in one of the most sophisticated technological centers of the world and people are saying that nothing can be done," Simitian said.
Simitian said the only impersonation law that came close to the Facebook issue was a law passed in 1872 referring to "any written instrument" or causing someone to become liable to prosecution or for payment of a debt.
The existing law, however, did not provide or address the potential for broader forms of impersonation, such as via social networking or e-mail, Simitian said.
He said he authored the bill after realizing there was a need for a new law to crack down on 21st century forms of impersonation.
Simitian said he wanted to be conscientious about protecting the free speech rights of those who impersonate for parody, satire and political speech. Only people who impersonate an actual person without consent would be considered to be in violation of the law.
The law will be enforced by local law enforcement, but the state attorney general's office could also get involved, Simitian said.