Go to jail for being annoying online

Well, it looks like George W. Bush has done it again. On Thursday, Bush demonstrated once again that he has no respect for the Constitution by signing into law H.R. 3402, (PDF) the Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005.

Among other things, this bill has forced me to remove the pseudonym which I had previously used and replace it with my real name all across the site. The reason? Now, if you post anything anonymously on the Internet that’s annoying, you could go to prison.

That’s right, this bill criminalizes anonymous speech if someone finds it annoying.

The bill modifies the Communications Act, 47 USC 223(a)(1)(C), which states that whoever “makes a telephone call or utilizes a telecommunications device, whether or not conversation or communication ensues, without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person at the called number or who receives the communications;” so as to apply to communications sent over the Internet.

The section (h)(1)(C), added by the new law, states that a telecommunications device “(C) in the case of subparagraph (C) of subsection (a)(1), includes any device or software that can be used to originate telecommunications or other types of communications that are transmitted, in whole or in part, by
the Internet (as such term is defined in section 1104 of the Internet Tax Freedom Act (47 U.S.C. 151 note)).”

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) added it as an amendment to the bill, and the changes passed unanimously in the Senate, and by voice vote in the House. Because the bill funds the Department of Justice, there’s virtually no way anyone would have voted no on it.

Originally this section applied to interstate obscene, harassing and annoying phone calls. Now it could apply to e-mail, Web site postings, and God only knows what else, if the recipient finds the communication annoying.

An earlier version that the House approved in September had radically different wording. (PDF) It was reasonable by comparison, and criminalized only using an “interactive computer service” to cause someone “substantial emotional harm.”

There are perfectly legitimate reasons to set up a Web site or write something incendiary without telling everyone exactly who you are.

If President Bush truly believed in the principle of limited government (it is in his official bio), he’d realize that the law he signed cannot be squared with the Constitution he swore to uphold. — Declan McCullagh

Indeed. Trying to deal with the very real problem of cyberstalking is admirable. But this goes much too far.

Not that the pseudonym mattered much on here anyway, since my identity is fairly widely known, and it’s easy enough to look up anyway. But it’s the principle of the matter. Anonymous speech is not a crime. This country was founded in part on it. Making it a crime is like an earthquake that cracks the foundation on which this country was built, and for which our forefathers and brothers and sisters have died.

Update: The Electronic Frontier Foundation has an initial analysis of this new law, suggesting that the courts are likely to limit its applicability, as they did with a similar provision in the ill-fated Communications Decency Act.

The provision here (subsection (a)(1)(C)) is different ‘ it speaks neither of indecent nor obscene speech, and was thus not directly affected by ApolloMEDIA. Nevertheless, a court considering this provision may also be guided to find a reading of the revised law that will comport with the First Amendment. — Electronic Frontier Foundation

One thought on “Go to jail for being annoying online

  • September 15, 2007 at 7:59 pm

    The word “intent” is not the problem here. It’s the words “annoy” and “harass” which are much too vague.

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