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FRIDAY, JANUARY 13, 2006
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EDITORIAL

Congress: Does this editorial annoy you?

It is now a federal crime to use the Internet to anonymously annoy someone.

Buried in the Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act, which President Bush signed into law Jan. 5, is a provision specifying fines and prison terms (up to two years) for anyone who "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. ... "

In simpler terms, sending an anonymous e-mail or posting anonymously to an Internet message board or Web log is now a crime if you do so with the intent of annoying someone.

Threatening and harassing communications are one thing, but communications that merely are "annoying" are clearly another. How does one define "annoying," anyway? A person can be annoyed by almost anything. And to be blunt, sometimes some people deserve to be annoyed. The members of the U.S. House and Senate who backed this provision, in fact, could be annoyed by this editorial. Would that make it a crime, then, for someone to anonymously post this editorial on the Internet?

Granted, anonymity can be and sometimes is abused on the Internet. But there often is good reason to make anonymous comments online, especially if the person making the comments has a legitimate fear of reprisals. In fact, American political discourse has a long tradition of anonymous writers, including many of the pamphleteers who editorialized in favor of the War for Independence.

If those patriots were writing today, they would certainly be using the Internet. And their comments, to say the least, would annoy any modern-day King Georges.

If it was Congress' intent to craft a law that outlaws targeting a specific individual with annoying or harassing communications via the Internet, then Congress needs to clarify the legislation's language. But if it was, at least in part, Congress' intent to shield politicians and others in power from anonymous criticism, then it's the American public that should be annoyed.

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