January 15, 2006

Anonymous Online Annoyances Outlawed?

You may want to read this CNet News.com editorial, as this post will make more sense if you do:

Perspective: Create an e-annoyance, go to jail
By Declan McCullagh
Published: January 9, 2006, 4:00 AM PST

From the article:

"Annoying someone via the Internet is now a federal crime.

It's no joke. Last Thursday, President Bush signed into law a prohibition on posting annoying Web messages or sending annoying e-mail messages without disclosing your true identity.

In other words, it's OK to flame someone on a mailing list or in a blog as long as you do it under your real name. Thank Congress for small favors, I guess."

Note there's apparently a mens rea or intent component. Otherwise, this would end up as yet another anti-spam law (who doesn't find spam quite annoying?). One thought occurred to me about anonymous blogging: What if something is posted anonymously that others may find annoying?

Even if the blogger is ultimately proven innocent, one could still be charged and would have to defend against it to show there was a different intent. I've always thought anonymous blogging was a fairly bad idea -- it's only a matter of time before your identity is discovered, and you'd be instantly accountable for all of your online remarks (just ask the recently unveiled "Underneath Their Robes" blogger, who was, ironically, a federal prosecutor). This could also put a serious chill on free speech, as there could be very good reasons why someone would want to post anonymously for fear of reprisal. Yes, there is prosecutorial discretion, but how well does that spell out the boundaries for us?

Here's a much more common occurrence I see nearly every day, especially in online forums and comment sections: Flame wars or biting remarks directed to another poster, usually resulting in a long, drawn out thread comprising numerous posts (i.e., not just a single passing flame). Many times they are the result of miscommunication and/or different perspectives, some are emotional knee-jerks, but others are just downright nasty. In many forums, participants use screen names, nicknames, aliases, etc. to protect their identity for legitimate reasons. Heck, many people don't post their real e-mail address just so they won't be spammed by spam bots. Will this become the anti-flame law? The "Let's just all get along online" law?

Yes, some cases of online harassment will likely be quite clear due to the pattern, number of incidents, content, etc. In others, well, it's rather like the old Tootsie Pop commercial: How many biting retorts does it take to get to the center of intent? Don't get me wrong, as I've received an e-mail or two from people who related an online harassment incident -- it's scary and it's real, and they would likely be the first to applaud such a law if it did them any good to prevent cyberstalking and harassment. Thus I like the underlying idea, which seems to mirror the telephone harassment laws, but where does one draw the line?

It also doesn't bode well when a law has to be piggybacked on another bill politically, just so no one would shoot it down. One wonders: how well would it have stood on its own? So despite perhaps some good intentions (pardon the pun), I think this is yet another Internet-related law that will be challenged on Constitutional and other grounds. I think I'll stick with the age-old parental advice, "If you can't say anything nice..."

Topic(s):   Privacy & Security
Posted by Jeff Beard