"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,
New Law Cracks Down on Blogs, e-'Harassment'
Report; Posted on: 2006-01-09
By Declan McCullagh
Annoying someone via the Internet is now a federal
It's no joke. Last Thursday, President Bush signed into law a prohibition on posting
messages or sending annoying e-mail messages without disclosing your true identity.
In other words, it's OK to flame someone on a mailing list or in a blog as
long as you do it under your real name. Thank Congress for small favors, I guess.
This ridiculous prohibition, which would likely imperil much of Usenet, is buried in the
so-called Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act. Criminal
penalties include stiff fines and two years in prison.
"The use of the word 'annoy' is particularly problematic," says Marv Johnson,
legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "What's annoying
to one person may not be annoying to someone else."
A new federal law states that when you annoy someone on the Internet, you must disclose
your identity. 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."
Buried deep in the new law is Sec. 113, an innocuously titled bit called "Preventing
Cyberstalking." It rewrites existing telephone harassment law to prohibit anyone from
using the Internet "without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy."
Free Speech: Yahoo Admits Deleting Messages
November 19, 2001 -- Two items of interest. (1) Yahoo has admitted
that it deletes messages it does not like. See Washington Post
article below, and commentary by Terry Cross. See also (2) a message
I received from "stop the hate. org." The writer looked up my
domain registry and apparently thinks he is tattling on me. We can
expect more ISPs to "voluntarily" shut down service if the customer
speaks forbidden truth.
==== Yahoo Admits deleting messages ===
From: "Terry Cross" <email@example.com>
Subject: Pop! Goes Our Freedom
Date: Sun, 18 Nov 2001 23:24:25 -0500
X-OriginalArrivalTime: 19 Nov 2001 04:24:19.0055 (UTC)
All around the Internet
The tyrants chased our freedom
They merged the companies all into one
Pop! Goes our freedom.
Screening Free Speech?
Online Companies Draw Fire for Removing 'Offensive' Postings
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 18, 2001; Page H01
Yahoo's message boards are erupting with the kind of free-flowing,
impassioned discussions the Internet's creators always
dreamed of, with postings about practically every aspect
of the hunt for terrorists, the capture of Kabul and mysterious plane
But what's also revealing is what is being deleted.
Gone are some gloating messages that say America deserved the attacks.
Gone are some links to extremist sites promoting a jihad, or holy war,
against the Western world. Gone too is a sarcastic note posted by
college student Usman Sheikh:
"America succesfully [sic] attacks terrorists, pinpoint smart bombing,"
the note began, linking to pictures of bloody children who were hurt or
killed as a result of the recent military raids.
The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based online company, which runs the most popular
destination on the World Wide Web, removed the note soon after it was
posted, drawing applause from those who say they're happy to see that
the Internet is finally getting a conscience. But others worry about
what such censorship by the likes of America Online, MSN and Lycos means
for a medium widely regarded as a haven for free speech and openness.
"The Western media and politicians keep talking about their freedom of
speech, freedom of expression and how they are against the censoring of
different views . . . yet they are no different from any oppressive
Third World country or any dictatorship," Sheikh, 20, said in an
While many perceive the Internet as a public sidewalk where people are
protected by federal law, it really operates more like a collection of
private buildings run by for-profit businesses that have the legal right
to screen their content as they please.
People who come to the Web sites must obey the companies' "terms of
service" agreements, which are in their simplest terms long lists of
legally binding do's and don'ts.
Yahoo and other companies use similar language to prohibit the posting
of anything that's "unlawful, harmful, threatening,abusive,
harassing, tortious, defamatory, vulgar, obscene,
libelous, invasive of another's privacy, hateful, or racially,
ethnically or otherwise objectionable."
In the past, "we would err on the side of 'If it's distasteful, let it
stay,' " said Stephen Killeen, president of Terra Lycos U.S. "Now, we
err on the side of 'If you want to post this kind of information, you
don't have to do it here.' "
"The sentiment in the United States changed on September 11 about what's
acceptable and what's not in terms of what you can say," Killeen
The information being taken off the Internet represents only a tiny
portion of what's out there. People are free to set up Web sites and
independently post what they want -- with little to fear. The large
Internet companies themselves sponsor hundreds if not thousands of chat
rooms or message boards where anyone can publish their two cents' worth
on a subject. So much is written that it is virtually impossible for
companies to review everything that might appear on their sites, so they
typically rely on people to complain first.
The online companies' responsibility for censoring material has been
questioned repeatedly in court. Under federal law, the companies do not
enjoy a blanket exemption from liability as telephone companies do for
conversations that are carried over their wires. But the courts
generally have not held the online firms responsible. In one pivotal
case earlier this year, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a mother
who tried to stop the distribution of nude pictures of her son on
America Online could not sue the service provider for a subscriber's
actions. The family is seeking a U.S. Supreme Court review of that
Regardless of their legal standing, some worry that the Internet
companies are moving more aggressively in recent weeks to screen content
on their sites.
"In times of war, there has been a willingness among Americans to give
up some rights -- to honor curfews, martial law and even
restrictions on speech . . . The filtering of Internet message boards is
part of all this," said Stuart Biegel, a professor at the University of
California at Los Angeles who specializes in law and cyberspace.
Some say Internet companies are screening material with a double
standard -- supporting patriotic messages while frowning on those that
criticize the government's actions. In some cases, people say,
anti-U.S. or anti-Israeli messages appear to be deleted faster and more
frequently than anti-Arab posts.
Laila Al-Qatami, a spokeswoman for the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination
Committee, said some Internet companies have been slow to respond to
concerns expressed by Muslims.
"We have had several cases reported to us of postings by people with
Arab-sounding names being taken down because they expressed a different
point of view. Likewise, we've been told of harassing messages against
people of Arab descent not being taken down," she said.
Yahoo has deleted a note calling someone a "zionist israeli scum bag."
But another message -- "Muslims are against the jews because muslims are
too greedy. They want to take israel's teeny weeny land. That's how
greedy and parasitic these muslims are. America should wipe them all
out." -- has remained up for weeks despite several complaints lodged by
users and copied to The Washington Post.
Postings by "heil_bush" appear to have been taken down while those by
"mad_muhammed," "burn_islam" and
Shiekh, who has been frequenting the Yahoo message boards for two years,
said he understands why a site might take down instructions for making a
bomb or erase a posting that might endanger national security. But he
said people's opinions should not be censored.
Earlier this month, he tried four times to post variations of his
message about children being injured in the U.S. raids but each one was
deleted within a few hours. He's also complained to Yahoo repeatedly
about messages that he says express anti-Arab sentiment, only to get a
form letter in return thanking him for his input.
If the company can be so aggressive about taking down his messages, he
said, "surely Yahoo can do much, much more to take action against the
numerous hatemongers and racists we have plaguing the Islamic [message]
boards making racist posts everyday and using all the filth at their
Shiekh said such bias is probably more subconscious than deliberate.
The result, though, is that it fails to distinguish between terrorists
and law-abiding Muslims.
"We are not big fans of U.S. foreign policy," he said of himself and
some of his online friends, "but you bet we condemn this terrorist act
and all terrorist acts."
Yahoo spokeswoman Nicki Dugan said the company does not actively police
its boards but simply responds to complaints from users and removes
material at the discretion of the team of screeners. Each complaint is
evaluated individually, she added, and action is taken within 24 hours.
"We're straddling the fine line between enabling people to communicate
freely and preventing people from posting things that are unlawful or
harmful in any way," she said.
Indeed, some complain that Yahoo doesn't do enough to police its site.
In a note posted on a financial message board this week, one person
called on the online service and the FBI to be more vigilant. "Can you
please explain why . . . some anti-American [expletive] on this board
has not been sniffed out and snuffed out yet?" the correspondent wrote.
Another protested: "I can't believe that Yahoo lets [people post]
A 36-year-old businessman who goes by the online alias"spiderrico"
said he has been shocked by some messages he's read
on Yahoo that say America should blame itself for the attacks on the
World Trade Center and Pentagon. He said he is conflicted about how
Yahoo should deal with the authors.
"I know freedom of speech is important, but at a time like this I don't
want to read messages sympathizing with the terrorists," he said in an
It's not just online postings that get censored. Another company,
Verisign Inc., which is responsible for maintaining part of the
Internet's addressing system, has announced it will no longer allow
people to resell names that refer to the attacks. Auction house eBay has
banned the sale of memorabilia related to the devastation of the World
Trade Center and the Pentagon except in the cases where the items are
"described in a positive and commemorative way" and if all the proceeds
go to charity.
Even such search engines have revised their responses.
When people type in "How do I build a bomb?" at the Ask Jeeves site,
they are presented with a list of links, the first one being "Where can
I find the latest news on the national tragedy?"
If they ask "What's Islam?," among the responses is a note that says the
religion does not condone terrorism. And when people ask about race and
the Sept. 11 attacks, they'll get links about hate crimes and the law.
"We are invoking freedom of speech in that we as editors are stating
what our Jworldviews are," said Steve Berkowitz, president of AskJeeves
Web properties. "We are creating what is a morally acceptable view of
(C) 2001 The Washington Post Company