Annoyance isn't against the law, but, wait, it is now!

Summary:Remember freedom of speech? It's going away fast.

Declan McCullagh catches a ridiculous new change to federal telecommunications laws: It is now illegal, after President Bush signed H.R. 3402, the "Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005," to harrass someone by posting an anonymous comment on their blog.

This is a law open to incredible abuse both by companies and politicians who want to silence critics. 

Section 113 of the bill includes this:

    (a) In General- Paragraph (1) of section 223(h) of the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 223(h)(1)) is amended--
      (1) in subparagraph (A), by striking `and' at the end;
      (2) in subparagraph (B), by striking the period at the end and inserting `; and'; and
      (3) by adding at the end the following new subparagraph:
        `(C) in the case of subparagraph (C) of subsection (a)(1), includes 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 (as such term is defined in section 1104 of the Internet Tax Freedom Act (47 U.S.C. 151 note)).'.

    (b) Rule of Construction- This section and the amendment made by this section may not be construed to affect the meaning given the term `telecommunications device' in section 223(h)(1) of the Communications Act of 1934, as in effect before the date of the enactment of this section.

The effect of this, even though you can't tell it from the language of the bill, is to rewrite this part of the Communications Act of 1934 to read: (B) makes a telephone call, whether or not conversation ensues, without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person at the called number and; (C) makes or causes the telephone of another repeatedly or continuously to ring, with intent to harass any person at the called number ((C) in the case of subparagraph (C) of subsection (a)(1), includes 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 (as such term is defined in section 1104 of the Internet Tax Freedom Act (47 U.S.C. 151 note)).’

That makes "annoying" someone via comments posted on a blog or Web site a crime punishable by fines of up to $50,000 and/or imprisonment for up to six months.

That's bad news, because it silences critics. Even if you find a critic annoying, they have a right to speak. The bargain we made with the Web was that everyone, even annoying anonymous critics, have a voice. That's been rolled back and, along with it, another important foundation of freedom of speech.

Topics: Telcos

About

Mitch Ratcliffe is a veteran journalist, media executive and entrepreneur. He was editor of the ground-breaking Digital Media newsletter in the 1990s and a frequent contributor to ZDNet over the years. He led development of the first Web audio/video news network at ON24, sat on the board of Electric Classifieds Inc. and Match.com, and wor... Full Bio

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