Considering Creating a Fake Facebook Page? Read This!

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Writing on digital walls, posting pictures, and requesting friends is all in the name of social networking when you’re logged onto Facebook as yourself. But when your profile assumes someone else’s identity, it goes from providing online entertainment, to breaking the law. That means what began as a joke, could put you in front of a judge fast.

Consider the case of Tim Puntarelli, a high-school dean of students who is suing Facebook alleging harassment and identity theft  after an unknown person created a page in Puntarelli’s name. According to the suit, the fake page included “pictures and messages inappropriate for a dean of students.” The page was taken down in April, and on May 9 a judge ordered Facebook to turn over information on the creator’s identity. (The site’s privacy policy requires a court order, which was the case in this matter, or subpoena in order to release personal information.)

“Impersonating anyone or anything is prohibited,” states Facebook policy. But that doesn’t prevent thousands of users from creating pages in the likeness of their favorite celebrities, or high school dean. There are more than 500 Miley Cyrus profiles and 144 for Heidi Montag (though only six Jennifer Anistons). Needless to say, these profiles are probably not authentic. And if they are not, whoever created them is technically breaking the law.

If you’re considering creating a faux Facebook page, think twice before posing as an actual person that is not you. “Operating under someone else’s identity is technically a violation of right of privacy,” says Los Angeles based intellectual property attorney Benita Das. “The Daily Show (VIA.B) and the Colbert Report parody a news broadcast and talk show and their defense... is that they’re providing a social commentary.”

Where does parody stop and a right of privacy violation begin? For starters, it’s considerably more difficult to argue that the appropriation of a private citizen’s identity is done with the intent to provide social commentary. “There’s a long standing history of poking fun at, and criticizing icons, public figures and celebrities,” says Das. “A parody has to have a method of criticism or commentary with a unique point of view that’s being conveyed to the public.” In other words making fun of a school dean on a social networking site ceases to be parody, and instead is considered a violation of privacy.

And violating a right of privacy isn’t the only way to get involved in an online legal snafu. If you create a page in the likeness of Beyonce Knowles and use it in a commercial way, you’re violating her right of publicity. “The Facebook Marketplace feature would be a prime place for this violation to occur,” says Mike McDonald, an attorney based in Boston, Mass. Users can buy and sell virtually anything, including books, apartments, furniture and pets. “But using someone else’s identity to generate a sale, like advertising a couch as belonging to Beyonce, is capitalizing on her likeness.” The Marketplace Guidelines strictly prohibit selling “material that infringes the rights of a third party, including copyrights, trademarks, patents, rights of publicity and rights or privacy.”

And remember, what works as a joke locally may not fly online. “This is a new frontier for these laws,” says Das. “And how they’re going to be policed and enforced in such a dynamic environment as Facebook has yet to be truly established.”

 

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