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Annoying someone via the internet anonymously is illegal in the US

Posted by James Hammerton @ 2:20 am on 22 January, 2006.
Categories political liberties, democracy and the rule of law.
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Bruce Schneier recently commented on Bush’s signing into law of a bill that would make it illegal to annoy someone, anonymously, via the internet. From the news.com article Schneier cites:

Buried deep in the new law 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.”

To grease the rails for this idea, Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, and the section’s other sponsors slipped it into an unrelated, must-pass bill to fund the Department of Justice. The plan: to make it politically infeasible for politicians to oppose the measure.

However, Schneier writes in an update to his article:

EDITED TO ADD (1/9) Some commenters to BoingBoing clarify the legal issues. This is from an anonymous attorney:

“The anonymous harassment provision ( Link ) is the old telephone-annoyance statute that has been on the books for decades. It was updated in the widely (and in many respects deservedly) ridiculed Communications Decency Act to include new technologies, and the cases make clear its applicability to Internet communications. See, e.g., ACLU v. Reno, 929 F. Supp. 824, 829 n.5 (E.D. Pa. 1996) (text here), aff’d, 521 U.S. 824 (1997). Unlike the indecency provisions of the CDA, this scope update was not invalidated in the courts and remains fully effective.

In other words, the latest amendment, which supposedly adds Internet communications devices to the scope of the law, is meaningless surplusage.”

Here we have two phenomena I’ve noted in recent British bills, firstly measures included in bills which are not related to the matters the rest of the bill addresses — making it difficult for MPs to vote them down without jeopardising legislation they might otherwise support — and secondly, measures that criminalise actions that are already criminalised. Such tactics seem to me calculated to confuse and, with respect to criminalising already criminalised actions, to giving a visible impression of action on the part of the government.

Indeed, military action and large changes in taxation and spending aside, passing legislation is the most visible manner in which a government can portray itself as taking action — a government that pledges to tackle a problem will most likely pass legislation ostensibly aimed at dealing with it.

Very few people will actually read the legislation to see if it does what it says on the tin. Unfortunately this will likely include many elected representatives — the volume of legislation in Britain at least makes reading every clause of every bill impossible, and many MPs will focus only on “flagship” legislation and even then will rely on the reports of select committees, or the governments own claims about the legislation when deciding how to vote.

With regards to the freedom of speech aspects of the measure discussed above, the US constitution should hopefully provide some protection for people and might be used at least to blunt it’s impact. Were such a measure to be passed in Britain there seems to be no constitution worth speaking of. The Human Rights Act is the closest thing we’ve got, but consider the difference between the American Bill of Rights’ first amendment and article 10 of the ECHR (which the Human Rights Act enshrines in UK law. The latter is full of holes.

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