Internet Provision Threatens Free Speech
You wake up. You find an e-mail stating that someone has anonymously commented on your blog. The message? ‘Calling you an idiot would be an insult to all the stupid people.’
Annoyed? You would be in luck. Under a new law, this is now illegal. More precisely, ‘Communications that are transmitted, in whole or in part, by the Internet … without disclosing his [or her] identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass any person … who receives the communications … shall be fined under Title 18 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.’
The law will serve to protect people from online harassment. Unlike ‘real world’ harassment, the Internet offers a veil of anonymity to would-be harassers. Computer illiteracy has had people thinking that they have no recourse against online harassment.
With the passage of the CAN-SPAM Act which forces spammers to comply with certain regulations and the Telephone Consumer Protection Act which creates strict regulations for telemarketers, Congress has been making strides to protect American citizens from abuses of electronic communications.
Unfortunately, this latest law goes too far and unnecessarily takes away many rights.
It has been said that in order to protect someone else’s rights, one must give up a little of one’s own. While this is true, this latest act not only prohibits harassment, but also essentially prohibits anonymous free speech on the Internet altogether.
There are good causes to be anonymous. Anonymity can drive improvement.
Professors often ask for anonymous feedback. Online discussion boards, hotbeds for political and social commentary, are typically anonymous. Under this law, whistle blowing via the Internet would become illegal.
The anonymity that the Internet seemingly offers is an illusion at best. Simply navigating to a Web page will require identification via IP address, the Internet equivalent of a Social Security number.
It is this IP address that will be used to trace any potentially ‘illegal’ anonymous comments.
Given the proliferation of wireless networks and the ability of an average hacker using commercially available tools to hack into such a network within minutes, it is becoming increasingly easy to masquerade as someone else.
As has been demonstrated in lawsuits filed by the Recording Industry Associate of America against file-sharers, this possibility is very real, but also incredibly difficult to prove.
While the original version of the bill only criminalized the use of an ‘interactive computer service’ to cause ‘substantial emotional harm,’ the wording in that language is too vague to stand up well in court.
However, the current version of the act was written in poor faith, with the author knowing full well that the scope of protections would be overreaching.
Part of the fault lies in the continued use of terminologies that are vague, this time with the opposite effect. The reason why free speech has to be defended all the time is that it can be intended to ‘annoy, abuse, threaten or harass’ a person. Search the Internet for ‘Bush bashing.’ It’s quite clear that there are many sites published anonymously with such intent.
In fact, one might say that anonymity is part of the culture of Internet use, especially when politics are discussed, debated and disagreed over.
The clause was snuck into a bill that couldn’t fail, which kept it from getting the attention in clearly deserved.
Who can veto a bill entitled the ‘Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act’? A senator would be voting both against women and the ‘war on terror.’
‘Riders,’ or controversial provisions added on to larger bills, are part of congressional life. On their own, most riders would not survive the scrutiny of Congress, at least not in their original form.
But when hard-hitting laws are created and hidden in bills that can’t fail, there is something to be said about the hidden clause.
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