Monday, January 09, 2006

dear anonymous commenters

i have every intention of continuing to allow anonymous, unmoderated, un-word-verified comments on this blog for as long as it remains feasible. the anonymous comments have somewhat died down in the past few weeks, and have been mostly civil. i welcome comments, especially from people other than the regular commenters, and while i'd prefer you put something in the name field, i won't force you.

so anonymous comments here will remain for the forseeable future, even though, as cnet reports, anonymously posting annoying comments is now illegal!

It's no joke. Last Thursday, President Bush signed into law a prohibition on posting annoying Web messages or sending annoying e-mail messages without disclosing your true identity.

In other words, it's OK to flame someone on a mailing list or in a blog as long as you do it under your real name. Thank Congress for small favors, I guess.

This ridiculous prohibition, which would likely imperil much of Usenet, is buried in the so-called Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act. Criminal penalties include stiff fines and two years in prison.

"The use of the word 'annoy' is particularly problematic," says Marv Johnson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "What's annoying to one person may not be annoying to someone else."

Buried deep in the new law is Sec. 113, an innocuously titled bit called "Preventing Cyberstalking." It rewrites existing telephone harassment law to prohibit anyone from using the Internet "without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy."

To grease the rails for this idea, Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, and the section's other sponsors slipped it into an unrelated, must-pass bill to fund the Department of Justice. The plan: to make it politically infeasible for politicians to oppose the measure.

another completely unenforceable law from those in government who repeatedly demonstrate that they have no clue how the net works at all. it would be funny if it were happening somewhere else. i can understand wanting anti-cyberstalking laws, but anti-annoyance? who is the arbiter of annoying?

one thing the article doesn't address (and i suspect the legislation doesn't either) is the distinction between anonymity and pseudonymity. to wit, i do not blog anonymously, even though the name i use on this blog is not the one on my birth certificate and i have not filed a DBA with the IRS under the name "stAllio!"

stAllio! isn't just some handle i picked in order to hide my identity. it is my identity, and outside my personal life and my office, far more people know me as stAllio! than as ben. i've been using some variation of the stAllio! name online for more than 10 years now. everything i've done musically or artisticly since '96 has been under this name. i've done countless live performances as stAllio!, at various venues and radio stations throughout the country. anyone willing to do the research could turn up my "real" name in a matter of minutes.

in short, i am stAllio! and blogging under that name is no more anonymous than if snoop dogg or marilyn manson blogged under those names. but would that count under the statute?

these are complex issues, and passing legislation with vague, over-broad terms like "annoy" isn't going to help anyone. way to go, arlen specter.

update: a couple boingboing readers think cnet's declan mccullogh is full of it:

Maybe you guys should read the text of the bill... this is a wildly inaccurate interpretation of the bill, in which the word "annoy" appears not once. The word "annoy" appears in *existing* legislation (Communications Act of 1934) and it does not include any communication a recipient might find annoying. Furthermore, the identity provision is not specified in the amendment discussed. Your article is, indeed, a joke.

way to go, declan mccullogh.

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