Create an e-annoyance, go to jail
By Declan McCullagh
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.
This ridiculous prohibition, which would likely imperil much of Usenet,
is buried in the so-called Violence Against Women and Department of
Justice Reauthorization Act. Criminal penalties include stiff fines and
two years in prison.
"The use of the word 'annoy' is particularly problematic," says Marv
Johnson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
"What's annoying to one person may not be annoying to someone else."
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.
The tactic worked. The bill cleared the House of Representatives by
voice vote, and the Senate unanimously approved it Dec. 16.