Bad Ideas, Blog Wars, Blogging, Cyberlaw, Eugene Volokh, Free Speech, Media and Journalism, Rank Stupidity, Ridiculousness, Technology

New York Lawmakers Want to Ban Anonymous Commenting. I Wish I Were Kidding.

A large portion of the strenuous life of bloggers consists of cruising various news sites, looking for some tidbit ridiculous interesting enough to merit a couple hundred words. You do this long enough, and you wind up getting picky pretty quickly. So, last night, when I clicked over to Wired, it was surprising in and of itself that when I saw the following story I literally stared at the screen, slack jawed, for close to a minute.

That’s how ridiculous this proposed legislation coming out of New York is. The only thing I can say is that if this bill somehow managed to become law, the Above the Law commentariat would not be happy at all…

I’m not even mad. I’m just impressed that a group of state legislators managed to draft this with a straight face. Here is what Wired’s Threat Level had to say:

Did you hear the one about New York state lawmakers who forgot about the First Amendment in the name of combating cyberbullying and “baseless political attacks”?

Proposed legislation in both chambers would require New York-based websites, such as blogs and newspapers, to “remove any comments posted on his or her website by an anonymous poster unless such anonymous poster agrees to attach his or her name to the post.”

No votes on the measures have been taken. But unless the First Amendment is repealed, they stand no chance of surviving any constitutional scrutiny even if they were approved.

Republican Assemblyman Jim Conte said the legislation would cut down on “mean-spirited and baseless political attacks” and “turns the spotlight on cyberbullies by forcing them to reveal their identity.”

Had the internet been around in the late 1700s, perhaps the anonymously written Federalist Papers would have to be taken down unless Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay revealed themselves.

Conte, are you f**king serious, man? I’m pretty sure most people with even a rudimentary understanding of the internet think this is a dumb idea — except, apparently, for elected officials.

Sadly, Assemblyman Jim Conte and almost half of New York’s Assembly Republicans have signed on to this nonsense and waste of everyone’s time and money.

I’m not worried about this passing, not even a little bit. Because it won’t. What is upsetting is that one morning the idea for this grew in somebody’s mind (aka the bill’s sponsor, Thomas O’Mara). And instead of immediately thinking “that is the stupidest thought I had ever had in my life” and going back to eating Cheerios and acting like a normal human, eventually hours of time were spent were spent fleshing it out.

Wired doesn’t even touch on the specific wording in the Internet Protection Act, which is even more bizarre. Specifically, look at paragraph number 2:

1. Definitions. As used in this section, the following words and terms shall have the following meanings:

(a) [“]Anonymous poster[“] is any individual who posts a message on a web site including social networks, blogs forums, message boards or any other discussion site where people can hold conversations in the form of posted messages.

(b) “Web site administrator” means any person or entity that is responsible for maintaining a web site or managing the content or development of information provided on a web site including social networks, blogs forums, message boards or any other discussion site where people can hold conversations in the form of posted messages, accessible via a network such as the internet or a private local area network.

2. A web site administrator upon request shall remove any comments posted on his or her web site by an anonymous poster unless such anonymous poster agrees to attach his or her name to the post and confirms that his or her IP address, legal name, and home address are accurate. All web site administrators shall have a contact number or e-mail address posted for such removal requests, clearly visible in any sections where comments are posted.

The bill has actually been floating around for a while. I can only assume the reason it hasn’t received more coverage is because most media outlets assumed it was a prank. That said, the Volokh Conspiracy covered the bill earlier this month and provided a straightforward legal analysis bodyslam (by Professor Eugene Volokh):

It’s not clear what it means to “confirm” that one’s IP address, legal name, and home address are accurate; but at the very least, this bill would require a Web site administrator — me, for instance, if I were found to subject to New York jurisdiction — to remove any comment unless the commenter signs his name to it.

Nor would this be limited to comments that allegedly libel someone, or even insult someone (though that would be bad enough), despite all the talk of preventing cyber-bullying by the bill’s backers. Rather, the law would apply any time anyone makes a “request” that a comment be removed, even if the comment doesn’t mention anyone by name but is simply religiously or politically offensive to the “request[er].” The same would apply to anonymous material added to Wikipedia, if Wikipedia were found to be subject to New York jurisdiction, anonymous videos posted to YouTube, and so on.

The bill is unconstitutional, see Talley v. California (1960) and McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Comm’n (1995); the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has held, protects anonymous speech (except in limited conditions related to election campaigns).

I’ve discussed my views on bullying and cyberbullying before. But honestly, it sounds like New York lawmakers could stand to get bullied a little, if it would prevent them from introducing garbage like this.

New York Legislation Would Ban Anonymous Online Speech [Wired / Threat Level]
Nearly Half the New York Assembly Republicans: Require Deletion of Anonymous Comments Whenever Anyone Complains [Volokh Conspiracy]
Internet Protection Act [New York State Assembly]

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