New Law Criminalizes Anonymous Annoying E-mails and Web Posts

January 2006

We all better learn to think twice before clicking our mouses. A new law signed by President Bush last week makes sending annoying anonymous e-mails or posting annoying messages on websites a federal crime.

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. ....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."

For people who comment on use-net groups and blogs, this could be a problem. Here's the actual text: "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." Question: What is the definition of "intent to annoy" ? Who decides? Why doesn't this violate the First Amendment? As for how this bill slipped in under the radar, here's the explanation:

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.

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