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December 22, 2010

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Melissa Figueroa (805) 431-1213 (cell)


SACRAMENTO – With the start of the new year, maliciously impersonating someone online – with a phony Facebook page or e-mails apparently sent from their account – isn’t just a cruel prank anymore. It’s a crime.

Senate Bill 1411, authored by State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), becomes law January 1, updating California’s 19th century impersonation law to the Internet age. “A 19th century law is no deterrent for 21st century impersonators,” Simitian said. Online impersonators who assume someone else’s identity to harm, intimidate, threaten or defraud may be charged with a misdemeanor.

“E-personation,” said Simitian, “is the dark side of the social networking revolution. Facebook or MySpace pages, e-mails, texting and comments on Web forums have been used to humiliate or torment people and even put them in danger. Victims have needed a law they can turn to.”

A recent New York Times story, “As Bullies Go Digital, Parents Play Catch-Up” (December 5) provides a disturbing example. A mother, distressed by her son’s emotional withdrawal, learned he was being ostracized at school because “the kids say I’m saying all these nasty things about them on Facebook.” Though he hadn’t created a Facebook page, his mother found a page with his name and picture. “Someone had forged his identity online,” the Times reported, “and was bullying others in his name.”

“E-personation takes no special expertise,” said Simitian. “It’s as quick and easy as posting comments on a Web forum under another person’s name. Until now, there really has been no deterrent.”

Online impersonators have sent Twitter messages “signed” by celebrities, pretended to be someone else to send obscene e-mails, even subjected others to unwanted sexual advances by assuming their identity to post invitations on adult sites. In one example, a woman angry about her ex-husband’s girlfriend pretended to be the girlfriend’s daughter on an adult dating site, causing the daughter to receive lewd responses.

California’s impersonation law had not been updated since 1872. “Technology has changed the nature of impersonation and made it easy for anyone with a grudge or a twisted sense of humor,” Simitian said. “A new law was needed to address this form of harassment.” The Legislature passed Senate Bill 1411 unanimously; it was signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, encouraged Simitian to look at the issue after being frustrated by his lack of options to counter online impersonators. Guardino’s brother, a teacher, was impersonated by someone on Facebook whose posts made it seem as though he was mocking a disabled student. Guardino said his own name has been used to send inflammatory e-mails. “E-impersonators are just bullies hiding behind technology,” Guardino said. “This law ensures these bad actors know there is a price to pay, and holds them accountable for their behavior.”

Senate Bill 1411 makes it a misdemeanor to impersonate another person through the Internet or other electronic means with criminal intent to harm, intimidate, threaten, or defraud. Only an online impersonation of an actual person that is credible and done without consent would fall under the law. Existing First Amendment free speech protections will continue to protect parody, satire and political speech. 

The penalties for online impersonation are similar to those already on the books for other forms of impersonation – a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to one year in jail. The bill would also allow victims of online impersonation to pursue compensation in civil court.

For more information on SB 1411, visit