California recently adopted a law criminalizing the malicious impersonation of another person online. The law, which will take effect on January 1, 2011, makes it a misdemeanor in California to impersonate someone online for “purposes of harming, intimidating, threatening, or defrauding another person.” Violators face potential criminal penalties of up to one year in jail, fines of up to $1,000, and civil actions by victims.  

The new California law targets cyberbullying and harassment in order to deter behavior such as that of the woman who was charged last year with posting a 17-year-old girl’s photo, e-mail and mobile number on Craigslist’s “Casual Encounters” adult forum following an online argument, and the so-called “MySpace Mom”, whose alleged online bullying using the fake persona of a teenage boy allegedly led to a teenage girl’s suicide. California State Senator Joe Simitian, who authored the new legislation, explains that California’s existing law addressing impersonation issues, adopted in the 19th Century, “is outdated and was not drafted with 21st Century technologies in mind,” while the new law “updates and strengthens California law by explicitly prohibiting” certain forms of online impersonation, or “e-personation.” However, critics of the law – including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the activist group The Yes Men (whose activities often center on impersonating members of powerful corporations) – claim that the law may have a chilling effect on free speech. The EFF notes that the bill “could undermine a new and important form of online activism,” and that existing laws against fraud and defamation can be applied to online activities as well as offline activities (an idea echoed by other commentators).