Technology ignorant state legislators are at it again. A month after a civil rights outcry forced Arizona to change a bill that would have outlawed Internet trolls, New York State legislators have called for banning anonymous speech online altogether.
The legislation, which boasts the fittingly Orwellian title Internet Protection Act, would require websites 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.”
The goal is threefold, according to assemblyman Jim Conte, one of the bill’s sponsors: Cut down on Internet bullying, protect business from anonymous harassment, and end “mean-spirited and baseless political attacks that add nothing to the real debate.”
“With more and more people relying on social media and the Internet to communicate and gather information, it is imperative that the legislature put into place some type of safeguard to prevent people from using the Internet’s cloak of anonymity to bully our children and make false accusations against local businesses and elected officials.”
Few are likely to sympathize with Conte’s self-serving attempt to protect politicians like himself from “mean-spirited” Internet commenters. Online bullying, however, is a much less black-and-white issue, and finding legislative tools to combat the problem is commendable.
Outlawing anonymous speech, however, is pretty much the worst solution possible. Anonymous speech is protected by the First Amendment, so unless New York wants to just tear up the Constitution, this legislation isn’t likely to stand up to any challenges in court.
“Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical minority views . . . Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.”
The bill has been proposed in both chambers of the state legislature, but has yet to be voted on. Its sponsors are following in the authoritarian footsteps of China, which recently required real-name registration for the country’s freewheeling, Twitter-like microblogs.
But even under significant pressure from Beijing, these sites have struggled to implement the real-name system, thanks to significant technological and financial roadblocks.
Indeed, the bill wouldn’t just violate the First Amendment. It would hamstring the Internet and stifle innovation by adding hefty new costs. Not a smart move, considering how much Internet companies contribute to the U.S. (and world) GDP.
Protecting the Internet by killing it. Our legislators can do better than this.
Photo via Jim Conte