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 Internetchildsafety.net, 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."
Hundreds of new laws take effect Saturday.
Keeping kids in school
SB 1317: Parents of K-8 children who miss more than 10 percent of the school year without a valid excuse can be charged with a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.
Stricter motorcycle rule
AB 2499: People under the age of 21 must complete a safety course for motorcycles before being issued a permit
Water, water everywhere
SB 1413: Free drinking water for students will be provided in school cafeterias or food service areas; schools must comply by July 1
SB 929: Children’s jewelry that contains cadmium is banned from being sold in California; the state already prohibits lead in children’s jewelry
SB 782: Landlords will not be able to evict tenants who are victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking
AB 12: Foster youth eligible for state services will now be able to keep benefits until they turn 21
Minor pot possession not a misdemeanor
SB 1449: Any adult in California older than 18 carrying no more than 28.5 grams of marijuana will now be guilty of an infraction punishable by a fine of no more than $100
Another state holiday
SB 1057: State offices will now be closed on Veterans Day
Source: Governor’s Office
Ever drive down a major road and have debris fall from a truck onto your car?
Perhaps it is not a problem that a lawmaker in Sacramento would think of and work to legislate stiffer fines for the perpetrators.
A law by Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, would have increased the fines, but it was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009 despite passing the Legislature.
The idea for what almost became a law did not originate with Hill, though. It came from a voter in Half Moon Bay.
Each year, Hill asks for ideas and suggestions from constituents on what "Oughta Be a Law." Though the law about the truck debris was not signed by the governor, it was the first of two introduced by the legislator that came from those who voted him into office.
Hill said although he does a lot of work to introduce and create bills that will benefit all Californians, people who live and work here know well what should be made into law.
Suggestions he has received include requiring companies who sell ink for printers to lower their prices and creating a maximum noise level for music in restaurants.
"You could always avoid that restaurant," he said. "But you never know what people will suggest. There are some really good ideas out there."
Hill has already held two "There Ought to Be a Law ... Or Not" contests and is beginning his third. State Sens. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, also have encouraged input from voters.
Hill, who has received 250 submissions since 2008, is accepting new ideas through Jan. 31.
Only one entrant is chosen, Hill said. The "winner" will have the opportunity to travel to Sacramento and testify on behalf of the bill.
— Andrea Koskey