In the age of omnipresent social media, individuals tend to put every aspect of their lives on their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.
Imagine if one day, upon signing on Facebook, an impersonator had created a page and was pretending to be you.
On Jan. 23, the state House passed House Bill 1652, which would make it easier for people to sue those who impersonate them online.
The bill is currently moving through state Senate. It must pass the Senate and be signed by the governor before becoming law.
The law is designed to provide recourse for someone who has been impersonated and wants to take civil action against whoever impersonated them, Associated Students Representation and Engagement Programs Associate Director Jenn Hughes said.
Current state laws dealing with defamation are not strong enough to handle online impersonation, she said.
“The reason they are enacting this bill is because libel and slander laws don’t go far enough to cover it,” Hughes said.
Slander and libel are both types of defamation. Slander refers to defamatory spoken statements, while libel is defined as defamatory statements that are written, broadcasted or published in any way.
The bill has attracted controversy among media law experts and First Amendment advocates.
Hughes said she thought the bill did not infringe on free-speech rights due to provisions exempting electronic impersonation used for matters of cultural, historical, political, religious, educational, newsworthy or public interest. It also exempts mediums such as works of art, commentary, satire and parody.
In terms of the bill’s effect on students, if it passes people need to be more careful what they say on social networking sites, who has your password and what information you put on the internet, Sterling said.
“Something that you think is ‘just a joke’ can actually have legal ramifications if this [bill] is passed,” Bobby Sterling, AS legal information center coordinator, said.
Peggy Watt, a Western journalism professor who teaches mass media law, said she thought it was not necessary to create regulation for a relatively new medium, such as social media and other online interaction.
“I’m not a fan of making a new law for a new medium [just] because it’s a new medium,” Watt said.
The bill, which sponsors and proponents say will protect individuals from being harassed, slandered and libeled, is a rehashing of already present laws, Watt said.
Even though the original laws against those offenses were not created specifically for the Internet, they still apply, she said.
A similar bill in California went into effect January 2011, making malicious digital impersonation a misdemeanor that results in fines up to $1,000 and possibly up to a year in jail, according to a ZDNet.com article.
In protest of the California bill being passed, the Electronic Frontier Foundation thought the legislation was unnecessary because of the already present laws.
“Laws against fraud and defamation are already in the books, and they apply online as well as offline,” the EFF said in an article from their website. “Moreover, judges and juries applying those laws have the benefit of an extensive body of jurisprudence aimed at limiting their impact on legitimate free speech.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, founded in 1990, is a donor-funded nonprofit group that defends digital rights.
In contrast, Sterling feels as though the bill does not impose on individual’s rights, but protects them.
“I have trouble viewing this as going against people’s civil liberties, I think it’s protecting people,” Sterling said. “You wouldn’t want someone impersonating you on the phone or any other way to damage you, and I think this allows more protection on the internet.”
Jamin Agosti, a senior at Western, has experienced e-impersonation first-hand. He was on Facebook recently and under the “People You May Know” section, there was a person with his photo and his name.
The Facebook page looked like a spam account, Agosti said. The only posts made by the impersonator were seeing iPhone 5. The profile had also friended a good amount of Agosti’s friends.
It was simple to get rid of.
“I just clicked ‘report this person’ and Facebook actually has an option that says ‘this person is impersonating me, and it took about 24 hours for Facebook to remove the profile,” Agosti said.
Thankfully, Agosti did not need to take any legal action on the impersonator, who is unknown. But hypothetically, if House Bill 1652 was currently in place, he probably would not have sued the impersonator.
“I can see how a person creating a fake Facebook and taking social security numbers or really important information that would negatively affect me in the future would be a big deal,” Agosti said. “I don’t think I’d sue anyone, I think I’d definitely try to repair any damage that had been done.”
For students who have been affected by online impersonation, whether a victim or – sadly – an impersonator, there are a few important points the bill brings up.
The legislation is complicated because it gives individuals only civil liability, Hughes said. This means that in order to take action, they would have to find an attorney, take them to court, etc – something most students do not have the time and money to do.