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Monday, February 19, 2007

'Net Law Expert: Stalking Includes 'Anon' Comments

CINCINNATI (TDB) -- California intellectual property lawyer Eric J. Sinrod recently analyzed the reauthorized U.S. Violence Against Women Act and found language that could damp down some of the feisty nature of Internet exchanges. Sinrod said he located wording that makes it a crime punishable by jail to "annoy" someone. He worried that legal tools could smoke out the people behind pointed anonymous commentary, thus harming free speech. Sinrod's column is HERE.

These four-paragraphs register the depth of his worry:

"A small but important provision buried deep in the Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005, H.R. 3402, titled "Preventing Cyberstalking" and numbered as Section 113, which was just signed into law, now brings the reach of Section 223(a)(1)(C), quoted above, home to the Internet.

"Specifically, Section 113(a)(3) provides that Section 223(a)(1)(C) applies to "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." Hello!

"What does this mean? The Communications Act provides for fines and imprisonment of up to two years for violations. Thus, taken to a logical extreme conclusion, it is possible that a person who makes a Web posting or who sends an email that is intended simply to "annoy" someone else while not disclosing his or her true identity, could be subject to fines and jail time.

"So much for freedom of speech - so much for appropriate Internet anonymity. There is no requirement of harm to trigger the impact of this new law, and the annoyance standard raises a number of concerns."

There is more detail about Sinrod HERE.


  1. Well - anyone can sue anyone else for anything - whether there's a case or not is an entirely different thing. I will have to read and engage in debate over whether this is such a bad thing or not, having been the target of nasty comments written by anonymous posters. When people abuse their freedoms by invading and annoying and upsetting other people, it's a lot harder to fight for the unbridled right. Why not let the courts figure it out?

    I don't know - I need to hear more about why we need to protect malicious people who refuse to fess up to their feelings and how failing to protect their right will infringe on everyone's freedom of speech.

    Is it because we're concerned about what the courts will deem to be speech that "annoys"?

  2. Hi Jill!!

    I thought the 'net was supposed to be open and vigorous, so I was a bit surprised when I read this before posting. I suspect the law is a sign evolution is coming and people will begin to find themselves legally accountable via some mechanism; though I doubt the government can actually censor "annoying" speech. You know, there are lots of blogs run by people who don't reveal their identity. I wonder if we are heading to a time when that will be curtailed or controlled by government. Newspapers have great difficulty these days keeping the names of anonymous sources confidential, so I imagine it's just a short legal jump to exposing anonymous bloggers and posters and commenters. Probably will chill things quite a bit, sadly. On the other hand, I admire people who speak out using their names like John Hancock, who was not afraid when he signed the Declaration of Independence, an act of treason against King George III.

  3. You put your finger on why I'm just not sure which way is best, or which way I prefer it. On the one hand, if everyone could keep to the same rules...but that just isn't the case. Jeff Hess is a big believer in no curtailing whatsoever, no matter what the speech. Maybe I'm just too sensitive.