Saturday, December 15, 2012
Online Impersonation Laws Could Mean Felony Convictions for Unsuspecting Teens
Ever make up a fake email address pretending to be someone else to mess with your friends? Seems like a pretty benign thing to do, but if you live in the state of Texas, you could be headed towards committing a felony. In 2009, Texas passed the Online Impersonation Law, which makes it a felony to pretend to be someone else online with the intent to harm another. Louisiana also passed an online impersonation law, making it a misdemeanor to impersonate another online without permission and with the intent to harm. New York and California both have similar laws.
The first arrest under Texas’s Online Impersonation Law was made in July, 2012 and the defendants were two middle school girls, aged 12 and 13. The girls were purportedly using the persona of the victim on Facebook to cyber bully her. The defendants allegedly made threats towards other students under the name of the victim, which the victim’s mother contends severely socially damaged her and nearly lead to a physical confrontation. The local sheriff described the law as similar to identity theft. Identity thieves pretend to be someone else for financial gain while online impersonators use someone else’s identity “to try and get back at [someone] and ruin them socially.”
While 12 and 13 seem like very young ages for defendants of cyber bullying, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney noted that that there has been a visible increase in the punishment of minors due to infractions relating to social media.
A popular defense to social media infringements is the 1st Amendment’s right to free speech. In 2012, the ACLU began representation of three Indianan students expelled for using their Facebook walls as a conversation space to talk about another classmate. The school found the defendants’ actions to violate a provision of the school student handbook that disallowed bullying, intimidation, and harassment. The ACLU contends that because the conversation did not take place during school hours or cause disruption at school, the defendants are protected by the 1st Amendment’s guarantee to free speech.
Facebook representatives have reported they believe that approximately 83 million Facebook profiles are duplicates or fakes and they are taking action. Facebook announced that it will begin to delete accounts deemed to be fake. A user whose account got deleted would have to obtain special permission from Facebook before being allowed to open a new account. This is not a reaction to the possible illegal nature of the act, but an effort by Facebook to maintain accurate user information for advertising purposes.
As new laws are passed in an effort to regulate uses of social media, attention should be given to the type of defendant that is likely to break the law. Is it appropriate to label an act that is common for school aged children offline, a felony if committed online? Children will probably always engage in bullying. Should the act of moving bullying to an online forum constitute a felony when it is likely many of the defendants will be children? Or does it not matter who the likely defendants will be? In 2006, a Missouri teen took her own life after a MySpace relationship she had with an impersonator unraveled. If the result is suicide, a felony punishment for impersonation seems more acceptable. Creating a punishment that fits the crime will be the job of many state legislatures as the online venue is continually used in ways to harm others. Lawmakers will also have to navigate around the 1st Amendment in order for the laws to withstand Constitutional muster.
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