December 7, 2017 12:26 pm

Faking online impersonation could lead to legal trouble

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It could start as a lark, but impersonating someone else online could get you in legal trouble.

London got a preview this week of the municipal election that’s to come in 2018 with the news a fake website and Twitter account had been created in Paul Paolatto‘s name.

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Paolatto, the former London police board budget chief and businessman, announced earlier this year he planned to challenge Mayor Matt Brown for the city’s top job in next year’s election.

Paolatto has been critical of Brown and city council, in particular with regards to London’s plans for bus rapid transit. That criticism struck a sour note with at least one Londoner who created a blog called Paolatto Report, an imitation of The Paolatto Report, which is run by the local businessman.

READ MORE: Misinformation campaign starts early ahead of London 2018 municipal election

“Spending money on an election campaign this early is in violation of campaign finance laws, isn’t it?” the website author wrote. “Isn’t that unfair to other candidates? It absolutely is, but Paul and his team knows these violations aren’t seriously enforced by the City Clerk, never until after the election and I can find no one who recalls any kind of consequence for violating the rule.”

The operator of the fake Paolatto website told 980 CFPL it was created as a “lark,” but John Nicholson, a lawyer at Cohen Highley in London, says those kinds of websites can get people in trouble.

“I don’t think they’ve gotten into the area of criminality because they’ve indicated in their text that they’re clearly not Mr. Paolatto, however, they might be into issues with respect to civil liability because they are raising some issues about Mr. Paolatto that question his approach to this campaign,” he said.

Paolatto hasn’t given any indication he’d pursue any legal action but has asked for the fake website to be taken down.

READ MORE: Paul Paolatto to run for London mayor in 2018

Candidates can’t officially begin their campaign until May 1, 2018, and can’t spend any money towards their campaign until that point. Paolatto created the blog to make up for the fact he may not be as well known to some Londoners. His decision to advertise the blog on billboards and bus shelters has irked some in the community.

However, the city clerk has said Paolatto’s decision to advertise isn’t a violation of election laws.

It is a criminal offence to impersonate another person and take over their identity in some way, if it’s done for financial or personal gain, or to disadvantage another person, but Nicholson says that’s not likely the case here.

Nicholson does say this kind of thing will continue to happen more frequently, and it won’t be confined to politics.

READ MORE: Catfish beware: Facebook is working on a feature to alert users of online impersonation

“This is an issue that’s going to come up, not just in the political sphere but in a number of other spheres. People impersonating others online and it might have nothing to do with politics. For example, cyberbullying,” he said.

Nicholson says a different kind of danger looms for professionals who are regulated such as health professionals, lawyers or engineers. They could find themselves in trouble with their governing authority if they’re caught impersonating someone online. Nicholson says in those cases, they could see their license revoked.

Social media networks have also started to crack down on fake accounts. In Paolatto’s case, a Twitter account called @PaolattoReport, was removed days after it was created for violating their rules regarding impersonation.

READ MORE: Ontario woman impersonated elderly mother to pass driving test: police

Four years ago former Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke sued online commentators after they accused him of having an extra-marital affair with a sports reporter. The lawsuit raised eyebrows because the identities of the commentators weren’t known, they used pseudonyms such as “Slobberface” and “Mowerman.”

If someone finds themselves the victim of online impersonation, Nicholson has some advice.

“I’d first start with demanding the behaviour cease and the website be taken down and if that was refused someone could bring an application to the court to get an order from the judge demanding and requiring that behaviour stop.”

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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