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Legal Technology: Arizona May Legally Take on Fake Twitter Accounts

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January 03, 2013

Arizona May Legally Take on Fake Twitter Accounts

By Colleen Lynch, TMCnet Contributor

A problem that has been with social media since the beginning, back when MySpace (News - Alert) ruled the Internet and Facebook was in its beginning stages, is false accounts. People set up accounts in the name of famous actors, actresses or sports stars and impersonated the notable figures online, tricking many into believing they are the real deal.

Nowadays, the problem has exploded on the popular social networking site Twitter (News - Alert), and it has gotten so bad that the courts are considering taking a hand in the matter.

Arizona is mulling over legislation that would make it a felony to use another person’s actual name to make an Internet profile, but only if they are intending to “harm, defraud, intimidate or threaten.”

While Arizona is not the first to consider passing a law aimed at stopping online impersonation and fraudulent accounts, it would be the first to define the issue in these exact terms. Similar laws have been passed in New York, Texas, Washington, and California, all in the same vein of stopping faux accounts and the damage they inevitably cause.

After all, impersonation in the real world is called identity theft and it carries intense legal retributions, and some say there is little difference between the practice on and offline.

Where the law gets into some grey area is in the term “harm.” A Twitter parody account is often used to poke fun at that celebrity, or simply to use the celebrity’s likeness to entertain Twitter followers and even fans of that person. So, what exactly is the “harm” in that?

Well, as a lawyer involved in similar legislation and cases in Houston, Tex. Stephanie Stradley explains, “Harm can be very broadly construed--one person’s joke is another person’s harm.”

Likely, if this law passes it could be used to delete Twitter accounts aimed to make fun of celebrities via impersonation, which some would argue is not such a big deal. Defining the term ‘harm’ for legal purposes is understandably difficult, however, so Stradley may be right—if the law passes, it may apply to more trivial issues than those of cyber bullying or death threats.

Still, the decision seems to come down to this: pass the law to help put an end to fake accounts used with the clear intention to hurt the targeted person and then deal with the legal ramifications and cases related to relatively harmless online pranks. That, or keep the issue out of the courts as it has been in most states, and let the problem of parody accounts continue as an accepted part of Internet culture.

Kurt Opsahl, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, defined this danger clearly commenting, “The problem with this, and other online impersonation bills, is the potential that they could be used to go after parody or social commentary activities. While this bill is written to limit ‘intent to harm,’ if that is construed broadly, there could be First Amendment problems.”

Stradley insists, however, that the law will prove so helpful in certain cases that it could be worth the trouble of unimportant cases cropping up under the law. For instance, Stradley believes that politicians who have had parody accounts made to discredit and mock them would definitely have a case under the law, should it pass.

One factor which could keep the lesser cases out of the court is whether the fake account is considered credible enough to convince Twitter users that the person is real. If the account is taken as a satire or parody and not as the actual person, it would likely never hold up in court or even get that far.

Edited by Jamie Epstein



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