Still out of breath from a stage in the Tour de France mega-race, Lance Armstrong brushed by the media hounds and went straight to Twitter, giving his fans an up-to-the-minute account of what happened and how he fared. 

The Twitter Launch of Verified Accounts

Shouldn't he have stopped by the media tent to give the event the international coverage it deserves? Perhaps Lance chose to tell the story his way, first, to people who wanted to hear it right from him. But how do his fans know that those were his words, and not those of an imposter?

For this reason, Twitter has announced that it is launching "Verified Accounts" in an effort to protect the integrity of its account holders' identities. Twitter officials stated that the "Verified Accounts" feature will be an official seal of legitimacy on the profiles of public officials and agencies, and other well-known persons.

Legal Ramifications of Impersonations on Twitter

Stories of impersonation have occurred throughout the ages. A clever imposter fooling everyone about his identity is the stuff of movies and mysteries. Recent movies based on actual events have shown how the imposter hoodwinks the world around him. But when his charade is eventually found out, the whole persona unravels and he finds himself in trouble with the law.

Twitter is such a recent phenomenon that its abuses have not yet been widely tested in the courts. As with many "cybercrimes," the culprits are difficult to identify and locate. The individual whose identity is impersonated is the person most likely to be viewed by courts as having suffered "injury" and thus would have standing to sue. What will be difficult to determine is the value of the injury, and whether it directly or indirectly harms the reputation of the person. It may be argued that the effect of the impersonation was to generate more PR and thus put the celebrity in the limelight where they wanted to be.

Recently, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, Tony LaRussa, sued Twitter for "cybersquatting," trademark infringement and misappropriation of his name and likeness, after someone registered the handle "tonylasrussa" on Twitter and posed as him. Although LaRussa has stated that the suit settled out of court, Twitter has denied it.

Address Abuses of Accounts

If you or your company or office have been the victim of imposters on Twitter or other sites, seek the advice of an attorney to discuss whether legal remedies are available to you. Among the considerations will be the likelihood of identifying the culprits, and the difficulty of identifying and measuring the damages, or harm, that you have suffered as a direct result. 

If you suspect that someone is abusing your Twitter account, or that it's somehow being mishandled, take immediate steps to correct the problem. You may be able to get help from the Twitter staff. If your complaints go unanswered, consider other sources of assistance such as the Better Business Bureau. You could even go so far as did Star Trek star LeVar Burton, who started an account to combat his own impersonator. Of course, you should avoid the temptation to yourself impersonate someone. Your identity could eventually become known and you could suffer the legal and monetary consequences, and possibly even criminal prosecution. As this is a fairly new area in the law, these are uncharted waters and the dangers are not fully known.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • On social networking or blogging Web sites, is the information posted on my page my property, or does the site have any rights?
  • Could a site such as Twitter be required to offer impersonation protections to all subscribers or users?
  • Do I have to do anything to assert my property rights in materials I post on the Internet? Is copyright protection automatic? Is my identity protected?

Tagged as: Communications and Media, Privacy Law, identity protection, privacy law lawyer