Monday, January 3, 2011

Facebook profiles can be set up within minutes to catch up with old friends, but they can also be used to spread rumors and maliciously hurt people.
Starting Saturday, however, using a fake online profile or e-mail address to harm others can lead to a fine of up to $1,000 and one year in jail. The law that creates the new penalties is one of hundreds in California that is taking effect in the new year.
Introduced by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, the Facebook law is in reaction to the growing problems surrounding cyberbullying and e-impersonation that are affecting children and adults nationwide.
"What people thought was just a prank is now a violation of law," Simitian said. "I hope this is the first step in changing behavior."
SB 1411, which was signed into law in September, updates an existing impersonation law, originally passed in 1872, to make "online impersonators who assume someone else’s identity to harm, intimidate, threaten or defraud" a crime, according to Simitian.
Cyberbullying has garnered nationwide attention in the past year, with at least three teens committing suicide last fall because of harsh teasing online by their peers.
Simitian listed examples of suicides by teens who were bullied — 18-year-old Tyler Clementi of New Jersey, who was outed as gay by his roommate on the Internet; 15-year-old Billy Lucas of Indiana, who hanged himself after continued bullying from his peers about his sexuality; and 13-year-old Asher Brown of Texas, who shot himself after years of abuse online.
But youths are not the only victims.
Carl Guardino has been affected by the simplicity of creating an e-mail address. The CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group had a person create a fake e-mail address and send malicious notes out to professional contacts harshly criticizing the work of the recipients three times in the past two years.
Guardino said he might know who the culprit is, but the person has not been caught. He hopes the new law will be a deterrent in the future.
"Luckily, [those who received the e-mail] know me well enough to know that e-mail was out of character," Guardino said. "They said awful things. It could have ruined my reputation."
Steve DeWarns, a police officer in the East Bay and founder of, said on the surface the law is a good idea, but he questioned its ability to help investigators crack cases.
"I’m hoping this law provides more awareness that people are going to take it serious," DeWarns said.
He said the ease with which anyone can create a profile or e-mail account is what makes tracking and finding the culprits that much more difficult.
"When relationships dissolve or a business partnership breaks up, people are looking at ways to lash out, so they go online and say all kinds of things," DeWarns said. "You can still do that, now you just can’t pretend to be someone else."