A New Jersey Republican Vs. Free Speech On The Net

by John Hawkins | March 7, 2006 12:56 pm

One of the big problems with government is that the “cures” often proposed to fix whatever the issue du jour happens to be are often considerably worse than the “disease” they’re trying to prevent.

For example, one “problem” on the net is that innuendo, rumors, and outright lies are sometimes spread by anonymous posters who can be very difficult to identify and punish. Is this a big problem? You’ll find a horror story here and there about some huckster or malicious creep causing real difficulties for a person or company, but it’s certainly not a major issue on the net.

Despite the fact that this isn’t a serious concern for 99.9% of the people using the net, Republican Assemblyman Peter J. Biondi, a genius in the state legislature of New Jersey, has a brilliant idea to “fix” this problem. Here’s the summary of his bill[1]:

“This bill would require an operator of any interactive computer service or an Internet service provider to establish, maintain and enforce a policy requiring an information content provider who posts messages on a public forum website either to be identified by legal name and address or to register a legal name and address with the operator or provider prior to posting messages on a public forum website.

The bill requires an operator of an interactive computer service or an Internet service provider to establish and maintain reasonable procedures to enable any person to request and obtain disclosure of the legal name and address of an information content provider who posts false or defamatory information about the person on a public forum website.

In addition, the bill makes any operator or Internet service provider liable for compensatory and punitive damages as well as costs of a law suit filed by a person damaged by the posting of such messages if the operator or Internet service provider fails to establish, maintain and enforce the policy required by section 2 of the bill.

Cutting through the legaleese here, he’s basically saying that anyone who runs a comment section or a forum would be required by law to have the names and addresses of the people commenting. It would also seem to require that hosting companies have names and addresses of anyone using their service to blog.

That’s a ludicrous idea on so many levels.

First of all, how would it work given that these are free services and that people can literally dial in from anywhere in the world? Maybe via credit card? How much sense would that make and how much unneccessary red tape would it create? Furthermore, how could this be applied to forums outside of the United States? It couldn’t. Moreover, it’s one thing to go after people who commit libel, but this bill, in a roundabout way, essentially bans anonymous speech on the internet. That would seem to run afoul of the First Amendment. Then, we have to consider other forms of communication that can potentially be used for “anonymous speech.” Are payphones or copy machines going to have to meet these same requirements? Will anonymous pamplets be banned? No, of course not. So, why should the net be treated differently?

The scary thing about this bill is that if it were to go into effect in New Jersey, it would likely mean that forums and comment sections all across the United States would shut down rather than start filling out reams of new paperwork or risk having someone from New Jersey file a suit and drag them into court.

That’s why this bill is bad for the net, would have a massive negative impact on free speech, and should never become law.

  1. bill: http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2006/Bills/A1500/1327_I1.HTM

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