Texas Lawmakers Crack Down On Fake Online Profiles

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via MediaPost

In a move aimed at cracking down on cyerbullying, Texas lawmakers passed a new bill that makes it a crime to impersonate people online.

The new “online harassment” statute makes it a felony to create phony profiles on social networking sites with the intent to “harm, defraud, intimidate, or threaten” others. The statute defines commercial social networking sites broadly, saying they include any sites that allow people to register to communicate with others or create Web pages or profiles. (Email programs and message boards are excluded from the definition.)

The law was sent to the Texas governor for signature last week.

The move comes at a time when fake profiles are increasingly in the news, thanks largely to the relatively new phenomenon of phony Twitter accounts. Last week, it was widely reported that one such account had already led to a lawsuit. In that case, St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa alleged that the parody account infringed his trademark.

The Texas law conceivably addresses those types of profiles on Twitter, although it’s not clear that courts would find that parody creators do so with an intent to “harm” or “intimidate.”

It’s also not certain that the law would hold up in court. Internet law expert Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University, says the Texas law appears problematic for at least two reasons: it singles out social networking sites and bans speech that might be permissible. “The whole social networking exceptionalism is ridiculous,” he says. “There’s no way to distinguish social networking sites from other sites.”

And, he adds, the attempt to ban fake profiles might be unconstitutional because it could end up also criminalizing legitimate speech. “There’s so much potential speech that’s covered by this, it makes me nervous,” he says. Continue reading