By ALIA BEARD RAU The Arizona Republic
PHOENIX -- It could become a crime punishable by prison time in Arizona to create a Facebook or Twitter account in someone else's name if it's done without permission and for malicious reasons.
Arizona Republican State Rep. Michelle Ugenti is proposing legislation to make online impersonation a crime. House Bill 2004, if it becomes law, would make it a felony to use another person's name without permission to create a Web page intended to "harm, defraud, intimidate or threaten." It would be a misdemeanor to send an email or text message that appears to come from another person and is intended to harm or defraud.
About a dozen other states have adopted similar online-impersonation laws over the past two years, including California, Washington, New York and Texas.
"It's an issue that's only going to get bigger," Ugenti said. "The Internet has gone from a novelty to having a position of credibility, and it's appropriate to have statutes that address it specifically."
Arizona has passed a handful of statutes in recent years to address changing technology, including a law last year to prevent individuals from threatening or harassing someone via electronic communication.
Ugenti said HB 2004 is modeled after Texas' law but was prompted by a constituent who came to her seeking help. She said the situation involved individuals using Facebook and other websites in a way that caused her constituent, who does not want to be identified, personal and professional harm.
"If you're going to impersonate someone and you're going to threaten, harm or defraud them, it should be against the law because of the ramifications to the individual," Ugenti said.
If passed, the new crime could be used in combination with existing state crimes that address identity theft to bring heftier sentences.
For example, it could be used in cases similar to last year's incident in which a disgruntled Gilbert, Ariz., parent created a fake profile of his son's assistant principal on a pornographic website and chatted online under the administrator's name. Robert Dale Esparza Jr. was later convicted of two felonies, taking the identity of another and computer fraud. He was sentenced to serve three months in jail.
National First Amendment rights groups have voiced concerns about similar laws in other states, saying they could penalize individuals who create parody accounts on sites like Facebook or Twitter.
There are numerous such sites supporting and opposing Arizona politicians. Some clearly state that they are parody sites, such as the "Fake John McCain" Twitter account. Others, like the "Mr. Russell Pearce" and "Az Guvna' Jan Brewer" Twitter accounts, may be less obvious to some.
The San Francisco-based non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation has opposed similar legislation in other states.
"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 Kurt Opsahl said via email. "While this bill is written to limit 'intent to harm,' if that is construed broadly, there could be First Amendment problems."
American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona public policy director Anjali Abraham said the group is researching HB 2004.
"Any time you try to make law or policy that implicates First Amendment rights, you have to be especially careful in the wording," Abraham said.
Ugenti said she is confident her bill would not affect parody sites and is not intended to do so.
"The bill has a high standard," she said. "It's the impersonation without the individual's consent and with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate and threaten."
She said she has met with various organizations that may be impacted by the bill, including law enforcement and prosecutors. She said she is waiting for feedback, but has not heard of any specific concerns.