The Offense of Online Impersonation: A New Kind of Identity Theft

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Rash’s Internet impersonation was reported to the Pasadena Police Department. Image by SGT141

Impugned Acts Covered by Existing Laws

A criticism often leveled against legislators is that they pass too many laws. After all, passing laws restricting the behavior of their constituents is what they do. When something a little bit different comes along that should be illegal, many respond with the knee-jerk reaction to pass a law, without considering whether the activity in question is already the subject of an existing law. Sometimes the problem can be solved by enforcing existing laws more vigorously.

In Canada, the federal government has sole jurisdiction over criminal law, and some experts say laws specific to the Internet are not necessary. Under section 403 of Canada’s Criminal Code, everyone commits an offense who fraudulently impersonates another person, living or dead, with the intent to gain an advantage for themselves or another person or who does so with the intent to cause a disadvantage to another person or persons. Clearly, the allegations against Rash would be covered by section 403.

Tim Richardson, a professor of ecommerce at the University of Toronto, takes the position that online laws are not necessary. Richardson said laws are now in place and the “tools” that are used to commit these crimes are irrelevant. Richard Rosenberg, professor emeritus of computer science at the University of British Columbia, agrees. He feels new laws are not necessary because impersonating another person is already against the law.

Arguments in Favor of Online Impersonation Laws

Even though crimes such as criminal harassment and identity theft are already in place, there are arguments that specific laws should be enacted when these offences are committed by use of the Internet. The dynamics of these crimes change when committed online. They can be committed faster and easier than they could during pre-Internet days. Falsehoods that amount to harassment or another crime can be spread a lot wider via the Internet than they can in the real world. And once something is put out on cyberspace, it stays there. In many instances, these crimes are more serious due to the nature of the Internet than they were before.

Returning to Rash, who said her placement of the ad on Craigslist was “a joke,” – one wonders, would she have thought it a joke if she had to contact an adult magazine and talk to another person in order to place an ad? Would she have even gone to all that trouble to cause problems for her husband’s ex? Probably not. But it was easy to commit the offense of impersonation with a few clicks of a mouse in the privacy of her own home.

As Rob Gordon, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia noted, even acts committed online that are already illegal are easier to prosecute when the law is more specific. Having specific laws would serve as a reminder to police that these activities are serious crimes when performed on the Internet.

Internet Laws: Deterring Crime

Perhaps the best argument for specific Internet laws is that they will serve as a deterrent to people who might not even realize that activities such as those Rash allegedly engaged in are serious crimes. The more publicity online impersonation laws receive, the less likely someone would think that posting a sex ad on Craigslist in someone else’s name is just a joke.

Resources:

Texas Penal Code. Section 33.07—Online Impersonation. (2012). Accessed November 28, 2012.

Criminal Code (Canada). (2012), Section 403—Identity Theft. (2012). Accessed November 28, 2012.

Houston Chronicle. Felony to crack down on social media abuses yet to gain traction(2012). Accessed November 28, 2012.

Vancouver Sun. Law against online impersonation not needed in Canada, experts say. (2011). Accessed November 28, 2012.

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