Monday, January 09, 2006

Cyberstalking bill: another hoax?

Atrios at Eschaton reports today (citing CNet News):

The End of the Internets

Oh, great, crappy congress with more crappy unconstitutional laws.
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.
According to Declan McCullogh, writing in CNet:
Buried deep in the new law ["the so-called Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act"] is Sec. 113, an innocuously titled bit called "Preventing Cyberstalking." It rewrites existing telephone harassment law to prohibit anyone from using the Internet "without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy."
The thing is, I searched through the act on the Library of Congress's Thomas database, and I can't find this language anywhere. I've mentioned this in the comments to McCullogh's article, but the widely-read Eschaton blog already has 281 comments; my correction there would be lost. So I'm trying it here. I was burned by believing the Dartmouth ILL hoax story, so I'd like to make up for it by helping to nip this one in the bud. If anyone has any further information on this, please say so!

UPDATE: Alas, it's too late. Daniel Solove has posted a comment at Concurring Opinions that clarifies the meaning of the statute:

Declan's article is misleading. The provision extends a telephone harassment law to apply to email. Declan describes the provision as applying whenever a person "annoys" another: "A new federal law states that when you annoy someone on the Internet, you must disclose your identity."

But that's not what the law says. Instead it provides:

"Whoever...utilizes 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... without disclosing his 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."
Note that "annoy" is part of the intent element of the statute -- it requires the intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass. Far from an anti-anonymity provision that applies whenever a person annoys another, it is merely a prohibition on harassment. Declan writes: "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." I don't see any basis for the law to apply in this instance.
But the misleading story has already spread: see Buffalo Pundit, Shakespeare's Sister, Crime and Federalism, Objective Justice, Majikthise, and more. Atrios is still repeating the original report as well.

Look, I'm as suspicious and paranoid as the next RML, but we need to get our facts straight if we're to have any credibility. Don'tcha think?

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