Legislators in New York are tired of all the anonymous jerks out there saying unfathomable things about other people on the Internet. They want something done, and now, about these scurrilous, nameless, feckless, worthless, nasty, scum-sucking bastards. The legislation they’ve put forth to do just that has a central requirement, as follows:
A WEB SITE ADMINISTRATOR UPON REQUEST SHALL REMOVE ANY COMMENTS POSTED ON HIS OR HER WEB SITE BY AN ANONYMOUS POSTER UNLESS SUCH ANONYMOUS POSTER AGREES TO ATTACH HIS OR HER NAME TO THE POST AND CONFIRMS THAT HIS OR HER IP ADDRESS, LEGAL NAME AND HOME ADDRESS ARE ACCURATE.
One media analyst out there posited that such a rule would sail through just fine, provided that we repeal the First Amendment. And that’s stating things modestly. Take a look at the sort of transaction that the legislation appears ready to trigger: A Web administrator would have to investigate the identity of a commenter in order to keep the comment on the site. News outlets would quickly face a choice between hiring huge staffs of comment investigators or just shutting down comment sections altogether. Wonder which outcome would prevail.
Didn’t the sponsors of this legislation understand its friction with a free society, or at least a bit of trouble with freedom of expression? Tom O’Mara, the Republican sponsor of the bill in the New York Senate, says he “assumed” there’d be such “concerns.” O’Mara represents towns such as Elmira, Cornell and Ithaca, in the state’s Southern Tier. And boy are the comments in that part of the country ever fierce. Here, for instance, is one from a recent piece in the Elmira Star-Gazette about plans for compressed natural gas offerings at Dandy Mini Marts, a project for which U.S. Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) made an appearance:
Rep. Reed calls for a comprehensive energy policy but doesn’t explain. We can probably guess what he has in mind; he doesn’t mention protecting the environment. Reed refers to 27 bills but doesn’t say what they are. In fact, they are political bills crafted for partisan purposes. Congress will do little this year but play politics. As we have real problems crying out for responsible solutions, we should insist that the parties work together on a bipartisan agenda. Rep. [John A.] Boehner has threatened to rerun his clown act from 18 months ago, possibly doing further damage to America’s credit rating. This isn’t responsible.
The commenter is ID’d by name, via Facebook.
O’Mara says the bill isn’t motivated by personal animus. He has never been slimed too much by Internet trolls — “until I introduced this legislation.” Some impolite e-mails have reached his inbox since the bill started drawing publicity.
As for the First Amendment crisis posed by the bill, O’Mara says, “We have no intention or desire to infringe upon that and realize that we’ve opened up a can of worms with this issue, and so we’ve got a great deal of thinking to do on this issue.”
The idea behind it, he says, is that “if you’re an individual that somebody makes a false claim or accusation against or is harassing . . . the person who’s the target of that would be able to contact the Web site and say this is untrue or call attention to the fact that it’s harassing.”
In what can only be an understatement, O’Mara says there’s a need to “tighten up the language on who is the permissible one to make the inquiry to the Web site — you have to be the victim or the target” of the anonymous slur, he says.
Well, what if someone else falsely claims to be the victim? How would the legislation deal with such a scenario? “That’s a good comment, and we should think of ways to deal with that,” says O’Mara. “It’s all part of the dialogue that I would like to see.”