Kentucky to Ban Online Anonymity?

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A new bill in the Kentucky state legislature would ban anonymous speech in web forums, ostensibly in response to online harassment and “cyberbullying.” The bill would require forum posters to register their real name, address and e-mail with the forum. All forum posts would include the poster’s full name. Under the bill, any forum operator who allowed users to post anonymously would face liability.

The anti-anonymity bill seems to have arisen to some extent from the controversy over forums such as JuicyCampus.com and Auto Admit. Some are concerned that under current law – particularly Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – forum operators are immune from liability for their posters’ comments and the posters often are anonymous and difficult to track down. Thus, it can be difficult for plaintiffs to find someone to sue based on the postings.

This seems to me to be an example of lawmakers recognizing that the web is different – and, further, that these differences are bad and must be stopped. The bill would remove the protection of anonymity from certain forms of online speech, which correspondingly would suppress instances of speech that only would occur if the speakers believed they enjoyed the protection of anonymity. Online speech would track closer to real-world speech, which offers little chance for anonymity.

For more information, the Technology Liberation Front blog has an interesting discussion of the First Amendment ramifications of the bill.

5 Comments

  1. mpollock

    March 17, 2008 @ 1:11 pm

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    I don’t know much about the AutoAdmit thing, but I was under the impression that they weren’t good about removing posts upon complaint. And that seems to be the hook for not holding the site owners responsible (per the Tech Liberation Front article).

    I generally support the KY law. States should be free to regulate anonymous online speech that their elected legislatures deem more harmful than hurtful. I don’t really see the need for constitutionally protected anonymous speech of this kind, at least where there’s no strong (political process-based?) argument for why we should encourage this particular type of speech/ debate/ conversation.

  2. purefoppery

    March 17, 2008 @ 1:27 pm

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    Keep in mind that this legislation bans all anonymous speech on forums. It has nothing to do with the content of the speech or the type of forum on which the speech occurs. Thus, it doesn’t affect “this particular type of speech” except to the extent that it affects all other forum-style speech.

    Also, site owners are not required to remove postings regardless of whether they receive complaints, except in the case of copyright violations under the DMCA. CDA 230 immunizes site owners absolutely from liability, under the most prevalent current interpretations. This is because site owners likely would remove any complained-about content, regardless of the validity of the complaint, in order to protect liability — which would suppress a significant amount of speech.

  3. kparker

    March 17, 2008 @ 3:01 pm

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    Shouldn’t CDA 230 preempt any state legislation on this topic short of the likely 1st A problems? I just don’t really see this as a very smart or viable solution to the problem short of its various legal failings.

    EDIT:

    It seems I’m not the only one that feels that way. According the Ars story from last week:

    http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20080310-lawmakers-attempt-to-criminalize-anonymous-posting-doomed.html

    “Couch—who says that he has been the victim of anonymous Internet criticism himself—acknowledges that the bill is probably unconstitutional and claims that his goal is to draw attention to Internet bullying, which he says is a serious concern for many young people in his district. He does not intend to rally support for the proposal. “I think right now (online posting) is pretty much just on its own. It’s a machine that’s going to go its own way,” Couch told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “The state can try to pass some rules, but I don’t really think it would do anything.” ”

    And I think I agree with Ars’ conclusion:

    “Proposing an inane, unconstitutional, and unenforceable law seems like a poor way to raise awareness of an issue.”

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