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Nasty Internet CommentsMay Put You in Prison

Posted Sep 13 2008 6:20pm

I don’t know where I was when this story was breaking, but it seems a doozy: It may be illegal to post an inflammatory anonymous comment on the Internet, CNET reported a couple weeks ago. While the law could not be used on most commenters, it could be used on anyone perceived as threatening or harassing someone else.

Here’s what happened: During reauthorization of the “Violence Against Women and Department of Justice” Act, this language was slipped in:

“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.”

Um, I may be mistaken, but that sure sounds like you can be put in jail for a while if you post a nasty comment anonymously. Unfortunately, the final bill hasn’t been published yet, so I have to rely on this CNET explanation on how the law is worded.

I should point out that the original law that was modified was originally referring to harassing telephone calls. It seems the new law is intended to broaden the definition to include any form of Internet communications.

Here’s how Sen. Pete Domenici’s press release describes it:

Preventing Cyberstalking. To strengthen stalking prosecution tools, this section expands the definition of a telecommunications device to include any device or software that uses the Internet and possible Internet technologies such as voice over internet services. This amendment will allow federal prosecutors more discretion in charging stalking cases that occur entirely over the internet.

The word “discretion” is what I find worrying, considering how the current administration revels in squelching free speech. And while it’s very likely that such wording violates The First Amendment, that doesn’t mean it can’t be used to wreak havoc on poor commenters.

In the meantime, no one agrees whether blogs were targeted on purpose or not, but it doesn’t matter because some prosecutor will use it sooner or later on some poor sap. In other words, be careful out there.

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