Monday, January 09, 2006

So apparently, being annoying online is now a crime. According to that article, here's the relevant language:

"Whoever...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...shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both."

Question: do you have to use your full name, or can you get by with your first name? Especially if it's rare enough to be distinctive?

I don't want to put too much stock in the story, because as of 12:45 p.m. Monday, Google news only finds three hits in a search of '"violence against women" annoy' - the above article and two that refer only to it. So if those ellipses cover something really important or if CNET News has an axe to grind - I've seen them here and there, but I don't know them well - then consider this post nothing more than paranoid conjecture.

But assuming the basic facts of the article are correct, then this is ridiculous. If they just want to prevent/punish people who "abuse, threaten, or harass", then it's covered by existing law. If the amendment was a good idea, then they wouldn't have needed to sneak it into a completely unrelated bill. Eliminate those possibilities, and the main if not the only point of this is to stop people from saying offensive stuff. The article itself points out the problems with this.

There are perfectly legitimate reasons to set up a Web site or write something incendiary without telling everyone exactly who you are.

Think about it: A woman fired by a manager who demanded sexual favors wants to blog about it without divulging her full name. An aspiring pundit hopes to set up the next A frustrated citizen wants to send e-mail describing corruption in local government without worrying about reprisals.

In each of those three cases, someone's probably going to be annoyed. That's enough to make the action a crime. (The Justice Department won't file charges in every case, of course, but trusting prosecutorial discretion is hardly reassuring.)

There's not much point in talking about the Constitutional implications of this; a twelve-year-old could tell you that this prohibition violates the principle of freedom of speech, and he could probably tell you that there's no overriding need for the violation in the first place, too. It's bad, it renders the First Amendment moot if it's enforced the only way it could be, it's unnecessary, blah blah blah.

But besides all that, it's a law that would cripple the country if not for selective enforcement. Sooner or later, someone will see this prohibition and complain about burgeoning fascism. The closest thing they'll get to a reasonable rebuttal will be "You're just worrying over nothing and throwing every insult you can at Republicans. Our government is much too disorganized to use it like that. Besides, what did you expect? It's not like Congress ever does anything useful anyway." Aaand... how is that supposed to be good, exactly?

This is pinning a "kick me" sign on the back of the law. Intentionally or not, it is going out of its way to discredit the U.S. government. I believe that when the interstate highway system was first created the speed limit was only 55 miles per hour, until they realized how stupid that was - same deal here, only more so. Because in both cases, it's possible to treat the law like a joke without even trying. Social conservatives and theocons like to point out the rising divorce rate in this country and increases in drug use and teenage sex and on and on, and they usually blame it on a "culture of permissiveness" or whatever the boogeyman of the week is - liberals, Europeans, gays, who knows, who cares. But I think* the bigger reason people treat laws and traditional morality like jokes is just because the people who create one of those sets of rules already treat it like a joke on their own. 55 m.p.h. speed limits? Arbitrarily outlawing marijuana and equally mild drugs? Sodomy laws? Mind-blowing amounts of pork in the budget? And now, up to two years in prison just for being an asshole? Hell, when they're going to use my money like that, why shouldn't I cheat on my taxes, right?

Congratulations, Republicans. I'm too young to know from experience if our government worked even a little bit before your Contract [on] America, but you did your damnedest to make sure people know it doesn't. So far, you've done a heck of a job.

* And I have much more evidence of my opinion than the theocons do of theirs, which is to say, "almost none" versus "none".

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