Monday, November 9, 2009

NY Court to Rule on 'Online Impersonation'

Attorney, Raphael Golb, opened an e-mail account under the name of one of his father's biggest detractors - Lawrence Schiffman, chairman of Judaic studies at New York University - and used that account to send e-mails to Schiffman's colleagues and employers, in which he admitted plagiarism and fraud. While Golb denies he ever opened the account or sent any e-mails, his lawyer says it wouldn't matter, because whoever did that would actually be guilty of nothing more than an "intellectual prank," protected by free speech. Now, a New York court is set to rule on whether or not "online impersonation" is actually a crime when no actual crime has been committed. Libel is not a crime in New York.

There are several problems with this case, not least of which being that libel is not a crime in New York; Golb is absolutely guilty of libel. His lawyer tried to argue that, were Golb found guilty, lawyers all over the country could use this as precedent to stop all sorts of Web activity, from parodies to blog comments.


There is an ocean of difference between leaving an anonymous blog comment and creating a fraudulent e-mail address in someone's name and using it to directly contact someone's employers and co-workers with the express purpose of defaming the victim. Parodies and satire are covered by the First Amendment and no one would try stopping them - no one with any common sense... (which, come to think of it, doesn't include a single lawyer, anywhere). Golb's case is entirely different from the theoretical cases his lawyer posited.

Raphael Golb is absolutely guilty of something, and I can tell you what:

Since the man he "impersonated" is a professor, I'm assuming he is a doctor; if that's the case, Golb is guilty of impersonating a doctor.

By any standard, though, Golb is guilty of identity theft specifically because he assumed someone else's identity with the express purpose of damaging that person! He wasn't "impersonating" someone and I'm not even sure how you can impersonate anyone online, anyway! I know you can steal their identity.

Lori Drew murdered someone and even she was only charged with "illegally accessing a computer" (for "impersonating" a 13-year old boy) - and that verdict was overturned! We can't expect the American legal system to protect us here; we netizens have to do what we can for ourselves, by ourselves. And the way to determine these things is pretty easy: by intent.

Lori Drew intentionally created a social networking profile with the express purpose of instigating someone's death. Raphael Golb intentionally created a fraudulent e-mail account under someone else's name with the express purpose of libeling the victim - disparaging his name and reputation - and getting him fired. In both cases, the intent overrides the method; had either of these people used other means to achieve their intentions, they would have been convicted of other crimes. Is it any different when a thief robs a brick and mortar bank than when he fraudulently uses someone's credit card online? Of course not - nor should it be!

© C Harris Lynn, 2009


Anonymous said...

Professor (and rabbi) Tzvee Zahavy has issued a statement on this case:

He says point-blank that Raphael Golb is "not guilty of any crime or tort."

He also indicates that he received a phone call from Professor Schiffman, who apparently tried to convince him to change his mind.

ManoDogs said...

Hey, thanks, Anon!

I may leave a comment to the same effect on the blog to which you referred me, but for now, let me say that I concede - to a point:

Prof. Zahavy has a good point (one which I already knew): it can only be considered for civil action if the victimized party can show a financial loss; this is why I proffered the (admittedly weak) crime of "impersonating a doctor."

More than anything, I find Golb an asshole - just a smarmy, little asshole - a schmuck, if you will. This was no "intellectual prank," for anything bordering on the intellectual flees upon sight of the officious Mr. Golb.

Had he done what he did (and he did) and broadcast a message to the effect of, "I pee blue!" or "Bicycles make me insanely HOT!" then I would say it was a "prank," as well.

What Golb did was purport to be someone he is not for the express purpose of defaming the person he pretended to be. Again, it comes down to intent, and Mr. Golb's intent was to defame Prof. Schiffman. Period; end of story.

Furthermore, I find it odd that the blogger categorizes Prof. Schiffman as (also) "creepy" simply because he tried to explain his side of the situation.

At any rate, if Prof. Zahavy is a judge, then I'm sorry for Prof. Schiffman; otherwise, I hope a real judge finds some way of holding Golb accountable for what amounts to a flagrant abuse of every system.

Anonymous said...

There have been a few more opinions posted on this case: