New online impersonation law could land offenders in jail

Published: Aug. 4, 2012 at 1:36 AM CDT|Updated: Aug. 18, 2012 at 1:42 AM CDT
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Social media users might want to think twice before creating fake profiles of someone else.  A new law just passed in Louisiana now makes it illegal to impersonate another person online.

"Social media, it's unfiltered communication, straight from the horse's mouth.  It goes right out into the Internet, where it can be transmitted, searched for, and never goes away," said commercial litigation attorney Ernest Svenson.

The new law, which took effect August 1, focuses on stopping the misuse of email and social networking.

"There were a lot of laws that Louisiana passed to deal with cyber bullying, but this new law makes it clear that you can't open an account.  It's very clear cut, it would probably be easier to prosecute somebody under the new law, because if you don't have permission, number one, and you're impersonating somebody, that's going to get you in trouble," said Svenson.

Svenson says maliciously impersonating someone else online will now be a misdemeanor in Louisiana.  The new law specifies that the impersonation must be done with the intent to harm, intimidate, threaten or defraud another person.  It's similar to other laws in California, New York, and Texas.

"You don't need to really make it criminally liable in my opinion," said social media user Mark Montiel.

"I think you should be prevented from doing this now, and I think it can hurt people both socially and professionally," said Jordan Teich, who supports the new law.

In 2009, for example, someone falsely created a Twitter account under the Dalai Lama's name.  It was eventually discovered to be an impersonation, and pulled after it had gained 20,000 followers.  Professional basketball player Shaquille O'Neal also was impersonated on Twitter in 2009.

"I think all of these laws, they're driven by the growth and interest of social media.  They're driven by the fact that people are starting to use social media in ways that are harmful to people, and a lot of those situations have involved people impersonating other people," said Svensen.

He says one of the most famous cases was when a Missouri teen took her own life in her bedroom closet after back and forth conversations with an impersonator, who she thought liked her.  13-year-old Megan Meier's mom says a fake 2006 MySpace friendship went sour, and pushed her daughter over the edge.

"The idea that somebody can impersonate somebody, and then the other person could believe that they were somebody important, and then to have some drastic action as a result of it, that got a lot of people's attention," said Svensen.

Legislators hope this new law will make people think again before impersonating an online user.

If you're responsible for a fake Facebook account, don't be surprised if it gets wiped off the social networking website.  Facebook engineers say they think up to 83 million of its profiles are duplicate or fakes.  They will delete accounts they determine to be fake.  If that happens to you, you will need to get the company's permission before creating a new profile.  The number of real users is critical for Facebook, as it seeks to secure advertising revenue.