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According to an article in Marketing Vox, a judge has ruled that having a "fake avatar" or online alter ego, sock puppet, fake social media profile, etc., is now a criminal offense, thanks to the case of Lori Drew, who was convicted of computer fraud after creating a fake MySpace persona to torment an acquaintance of her daughter - an activity which supposedly contributed to the girl's suicide.
As Lisa Barone of WeBuildPages points out, should it really be illegal to hide behind an online persona just because some people are bullies? Yes, fake avatars are often used for online bullying, but having a fake avatar does not automatically make one a bully. One of the great things about the internet is the ability to engage in conversations with a wide range of people while still remaining anonymous (and, theoretically, safe) should you want to do so.
Reasons for creating "fake avatars"
Internet marketers often use dummy social media accounts to promote their products and websites. This can be annoying when you don't want to be sold to, but it is hardly a malicious practice. These accounts may be used by multiple people to provide updates or interact with customers or blog readers. For example, my co-conspirator and I have both Twitter and MySpace accounts in the name of our personal blog and these are separate from our personal accounts. We use these accounts when posting about things specifically relating to our blog or when responding to things people have said about the blog.
People may need more than one account because they need to separate out personal interactions from work-based or more public ones. For example, the tone I take when writing on Searched Designed Developed is radically different from the one I use when writing in my personal blog. The intended audiences are vastly different and so is the subject matter.
If I wrote on there like I write on here people would lose interest and go away. If I wrote on here like I write on there people would think that we aren't very professional. To me, as a copywriter, this makes perfect sense - you target your content to your audience. But, because of the two sets of online contacts and the reasons for them, I do, for the most part, have tried to maintain two separate sets of social media profiles - with diminishing amounts of success. Would one of these be construed as fake as neither contain many personal details other than my gender and age?
What about those people who enjoy using the internet because it affords them anonymity and community at the same time or who feel comfortable forums and discussions of a personal or sensitive nature to get help or advice because of the anonymity the internet affords them? Does not giving away personal details mean that you are lying to people online?
What about the people who like to engage with others online but who do not want people to see their picture, know where they live, how old they are or, well, anything else because, like the New York Times points out, people establish semi-fake online personas to avoid identity theft and protect themselves from predators? How can the state tell people they have to reveal personal details when they cannot prevent phishing and cybercrime?
What about the many other bizarre quirks on the internet that we would lose if people were forced to have one profile which they use everywhere? Years ago, I used to moderate a forum where the Admin and a friend had about 10 different personas which were used to great comedy value in the daily interchanges on the site. These were not established with malicious intent and were part of the unusual community of the place - people knew they were not real people. Occasionally new users were confused by the existence of the rather strange sock puppets but were usually put straight quite quickly by the community as a whole. Would this ruling have meant that a confused newbie could complain to the internet police and get the site shut down and the Admin prosecuted for computer fraud?
The internet should not be ruled by the law of the playground
This ruling, while not entirely outrageous, uses the fact that MySpace's Terms of Service require users to give "truthful and accurate" information - e.g. no fake avatars. Surely this gives MySpace the right to terminate an account - not the criminal justice system the right to prosecute? Except when everybody looks the other way when they see cyberbullying then what choice does the state have but to step in?
The issue should be the intent to use the fake profile for cyberbullying, not the fact that the profile existed. The case feels a bit like a junior high playground where everybody knows the fat kid is getting beaten up, but nobody wants to tell the teacher because you don't rat out your classmates - even if everybody knows they're doing something wrong - but nobody stands up for the fat kid either because they don't want to become a target themselves, so when the fat kid finally tells his parents, the punishment is doubly harsh because everybody should have known better - not just the bully.
We as a society need to do a better job of looking out for each other and of condeming people and practices which are anti-social and encouraging each other to treat each other with respect or we will end up with the state doing it for us - much like a teacher who gives a whole class detention because she doesn't know which student committed the crime. If this happens, we'll all be the worse because we'll have lost the freedom of the internet all because of the law of the playground.