Are Bloggers In Legal Jeopardy?

    January 12, 2006
    WebProNews Staff

So let me get this straight: if someone annoys me online, via a web site or in an email, and doesn’t disclose their real name, I can have them hauled off to SuperMax?

"If you're going to threaten me, do it properly."
-- Mike Wazowski corrects Randall's pronunciation of 'cretin' in Monster's Inc.

Much is being made of the passage of the “Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005,” which was signed into law by President George W. Bush on January 5th.

Of interest is a passage cited by CNet chief political correspondent Declan McCullagh, that appears to indicate anonymous annoyance online could lead to jail time for the perpetrator.

The labyrinthine way in which Congress goes about its business must have proved too confusing for some readers of the original article (and I include myself in that group), as McCullagh published a follow-up FAQ that detailed the relevant changes to U.S. code. Here’s the new text according to McCullagh:

“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.”

Organizations like the EFF will certainly have more to say about this in the near future. Determining just what constitutes annoyance to a court of law poses a number of questions, like how does this law impact First Amendment rights? That won’t be known until someone mounts a test of the law in the legal system.

As written now, corporations could use the provision against people who attempt to criticize their business practices anonymously, either from a customer or employee perspective. That would have a chilling effect on bloggers like Mini-Microsoft’s Who da’Punk, should Microsoft decide to wield this hammer.

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David Utter is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.