Since the beginning of the Internet age, people have been using nicknames in order to conceal their true identity. In many cases, this has been considered as a very basic security measure: fearing that sensible data on the web could be easily stolen, the majority of early users precautionarily restrained themselves from revealing personal details which could lead to an identity theft. As a consequence, almost every account was either impersonal or included fictitious data (e.g. a random postal address or social security number), making it more difficult to link to a specific person.
Whatever the reasons behind the popularity of nicknames were, the result has been a widespread use of ‘fantasy’ names and fake accounts. These behaviours, of course, used to be more common before social networks broke out, pushing towards a new era of loosen privacy in which once shy web users were slowly turned into share-a-holics exhibitionists.
In other cases, people used to look at the internet as a space of complete freedom from rules, in which they could join up to create self-organised communities and regain some of the liberties our modern society had given up. The most important of which was, of course, the freedom to chose a new identity, by self-appointing a nickname. This is for sure a kind of perspective which encompasses the anarchist ideals of freedom from social control and which eventually gave birth to the underground culture of hackers and, later on, to the anonymous movement.
In these eventualities, personal identities are usually hidden because users have planned to perform outlaw operations or borderline activities which are not directly unlawful, nor explicitly permitted by the law.
As for the law, the practice of disguising one’s identity by filling forms with random untrue data is not illegal, as long as it doesn’t end up in resembling someone else’s identity. In such eventuality, it should be considered as a theft of identity and many legislations considered this as an offence long before the internet existed. Even the Italian law had (and still has) a specific article of the criminal code, art. 494, which punishes with up to one year of detention anyone that makes someone believe to be another person, in order to obtain an advantage or to produce a damage to the victim.
In recent rulings, the Supreme Court made clear that even though this article of law has been written keeping in mind criminal behaviours which could happen in person or by writing, it should now be extended to include conducts entirely performed through the internet. This includes an uncountable number of activities which can be performed through all kind of web services, from chatrooms to mail services to social networks.
To exemplify, creating an email address with someone else’s name to count on the recipient’s confidence and obtain reserved information is not only dreadfully unpleasant but also an unlawful behaviour.
The same applies to social network profiles: creating an account using the name, picture and personal details of an existing person to make people believe that they are chatting to him/her and take advantage of this disguise to create a damage to the victim is certainly another conduct which is against the law.
In a recent court case, a former employee had entered an erotic chatroom using as nickname the initials of her former boss and providing other users the real phone number of the woman. The victim had received many phone calls and she had eventually changed the number to avoid being bothered. The court ruled that this behaviour (using the initials of the ex boss to make people believe they were actually chatting to her) was unlawful.
Many other examples of similar criminal behaviours can be imagined. It is important to remember that any access to the internet can be traced from the ISP (Internet Service Provider) back to the single device used and that, for such a reason, anonymity on the web is not a guaranteed value: creating a fake profile on Facebook to stalker an ex lover or a fake email account to send coarse letters to an ex boss does not guarantee, in any case, impunity.
In the end, it must also be kept in mind that creating a fake profile generally equals to breach the terms of service of many websites, which generally explicitly require to enter valid personal data and/or to possess a single account. In many cases, this could result in a termination of the fake account without prior advice.
Originally published on the Italian Law Journal (permalink)