Facing a free-speech outcry, an Illinois lawmaker decided Thursday to pull the plug on anti-bullying legislation he introduced to require website managers to pull down anonymous, hate-filled Internet posts if they were requested to do so.
A measure sponsored by state Sen. Ira Silverstein (D-Chicago) would have made website administrators, upon request, to remove comments by any anonymous posters unless those people attached their names to their posts and confirmed their Internet Protocol addresses and home addresses.
The plan called the Internet Posting Removal Act, which Silverstein introduced earlier this month, was inspired by anti-bullying legislation that surfaced in New York but died in that state’s legislature last June.
“I’m going to kill the bill,” Silverstein said Thursday afternoon after the legislation drew national attention and provoked criticism from Internet free-speech advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Earlier in the day, before deciding to mothball his legislation, Silverstein explained its motivation.
“It really has to do with cyber-bullying,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times. “The Internet is a great thing, and everyone is for it. Saying something is one thing; but once you put it on the Internet, it’s there forever.”
Silverstein said his intention wasn’t to clamp down on free-speech rights and that he merely was looking for a way to stop hate speech, particularly if it was directed at children or teen-agers.
* I think Andrew Sellars had the most cogent critique…
Ignoring that the bill makes no attempt to avoid the obvious dormant commerce clause issues inherent when a state tries to regulate what has to be on all Internet websites, and ignoring that New York tried the same thing last year with nothing to show for it, and ignoring that the average Internet user probably doesn’t know how to find their IP address (you can here), and ignoring that IP addresses are dynamically assigned on most ISPs and therefore one’s presence at a given IP address does not actually help to identify a person, and ignoring that the definition of "anonymous poster" does not include the critical ingredient that a poster be anonymous, and ignoring that the same State Senator also sponsored a bill to prevent disclosure of identities of firearm owners in Illinois (leading to the pithy critique "guns don’t kill people; comments do") – the entire premise of this bill is fundamentally repugnant to the First Amendment and may actually harm those that it is likely intended to help protect.
This is hardly the first battle in the "nymwars," and the obvious unconstitutionality of this bill will come as no surprise to those that have been following along. First Amendment doctrine has long held that, in the words of the Supreme Court, "[a]nonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures and even books have played an important role in the progress of mankind," and that "an author’s decision to remain anonymous, like other decisions concerning omissions or additions to the content of a publication, is an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment." The courts that have looked at this in the context of anonymous posting online have rightly noted that First Amendment concerns play with equal force on the Internet, and that "[a]nonymous internet speech in blogs or chat rooms in some instances can become the modern equivalent of political pamphleteering." To force identification of the originator of a comment “upon reques” without any limitation is just the Talley v. California case replacing each instance of the word "pamphlet" with the word "blog;" it is painfully unconstitutional.
But more importantly, there are very, very good reasons for opposing forced identification for all online speech. As danah boyd noted in one very influential blog post, the "real names policies" that are imposed on platforms like Facebook and Google Plus (with some qualifiers) – while usually done with the intent of increasing civility by forcing identification – can actually levy the greatest harm against the vulnerable persons and groups that such policies are intended to help. There are many people who have a desire to speak out on issues affecting their lives that simply cannot do so under their real names out of fear of harassment, abuse, or physical harm: think of a high school student who secretly gay, a victim of domestic abuse, a whistleblower at a government or corporation, or the victim of an oppressive government. We desperately need these people speaking out as much as they need to speak, and the thought of forcing them to provide their names and address or face deletion is unconscionable.