Arizona is entertaining a law that will make it a felony to use another person's real name to make an Internet profile intended to "harm, defraud, intimidate or threaten," which to some sounds like a law against parody Twitter accounts. The legislation, if passed, would make Arizona one of a few states, including New York, California, Washington and Texas, to enact anti-online-impersonation laws. If these regulations seek to put a stop to fake representations online, that does sound like the end of fake celebrity baby accounts and Twitter death hoaxes. Then again, these laws have existed in these other places for years, and that hasn't stopped the faux accounts from coming in. So what then does this mean?
What kind of stuff is the law intended to prosecute?
The law does not say that all uses of another person's real name can be charged as a felony, but only profiles made for the more nefarious purposes fall into that territory. The legislation is targeted at more serious forms of impersonation, like cyber bullying. Two Texas teens were arrested and charged under this law for creating a fake Facebook page to ruin a peer's reputation, for example. Or, the case of Robert Dale Esparza Jr. who created a fake profile of his son's vice principal on a porn site might fall under this law, suggests The Arizona Republic's Alia Beard Rau. Or, in one of the cases brought to court under the Texas version of this law, an Adam Limle created websites that portrayed a woman he used to date as a prostitute. (The case was eventually dropped because of a geographical loophole. Limle lived in Ohio, not Texas.)
Okay, the harm and threat in those situation is pretty clear. How can it at all apply to something relatively harmless, like a Twitter parody account?
The term "harm" is pretty vague, as this Texas Law blog explains, referring to that state's version of this legislation, on which Arizona based its own law. "'Harm' can be very broadly construed–one person's joke is another person's harm," writes Houston lawyer Stephanie Stradley.
So, that could extend to parody accounts then?
Well, possibly. Stradley suggests that politicians who had parody accounts created to mock them might have a case. Some of the impersonation of Texas lawmakers has gone beyond just the jokey fake Twitter handle. Jeffwentworth.com is not the official site for Texas state senator, but rather redirects to the web site of the anti-tax advocate group Empower Texans which considers the San Antonio politician the “the most liberal Republican senator in Austin.” Wentworth told The New York Times this domain squatting amounted to "identity theft," and could be the basis for the law's usage.
The law could also possibly effect sillier parody accounts, suggest privacy advocates. "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," senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation Kurt Opsahl told The Arizona Republic's Alia Beard Rau. "While this bill is written to limit 'intent to harm,' if that is construed broadly, there could be First Amendment problems."
Ok, but what about precedent? Has the law ever applied to a faux Twitter handle?
Twitter has its own parody policy that mitigates a lot of the possible damage that could ever lead to a court case. Saint Louis Cardinals manager Anthony La Russa sued Twitter in 2009 because of a made-up account, but the account was removed before the case went anywhere (And that was before these laws went into effect.)
But it's not clear that parody would ever be considered harmful enough for the law. When California's version went into effect, a first amendment lawyer suggested to SF Weekly's Joe Eskenazi that jokes could go pretty far without prosecution. "You're going to have to have room for satire," he said. The account would have to look fool people, he argued. "A key question is, 'is it credibile?'" asks Simitian. "Do people who read it think it's him?" Because of our increasing skepticism of things on Twitter, unless the site has verified checkmark, it's unlikely that most people believe in a fake account for long. So, unless the imitation tweeter does something extremely harmful to someone's character, it doesn't sound like anyone would have a strong case. Alas, parody Twitter accounts, for better or worse (worse, right?) are here to stay.