Proposed New York legislation aims to crack down on anonymous online comments

NYS Capitol from ESPMembers of both the state Senate and Assembly are pushing legislation that aims to crack down on cyberbullying and other online nastiness by requiring a commenter's actual name and contact info be associated with a comment.

From the text of the "Internet Protection Act":

"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. All web site administrators shall have a contact number or e-mail address posted for such removal requests, clearly visible in any sections where comments are posted."

The bill's Senate sponsor -- Tom O'Mara, a Republican from the southern tier -- has framed the bill as anti-cyberbullying measure: "Victims of anonymous cyberbullies need protection. We're hopeful that this legislation can be helpful to the overall effort to deter and prevent anonymous criminals from hiding behind modern technology and using the Internet to bully, defame and harass their victims." [NY Senate]

But other sponsors also see the legislation as a way to crack down on anonymous criticism of businesses and politicians.

From a recent press release from Assemblyman Jim Conte, a Republican from Long Island:

... the bill also prevents people from posting anonymous criticism of local businesses. Too often, rival businesses will post negative and false posts to hurt their competition. With more and more people turning to online reviews, it is important to ensure that the posted information, good or bad, is from actual customers and not rival competitors.
Finally, the legislation will help cut down on the types of mean-spirited and baseless political attacks that add nothing to the real debate and merely seek to falsely tarnish the opponent's reputation by using the anonymity of the Web. By removing these posts, this bill will help to ensure that there is more accurate information available to voters on their prospective candidates, giving them a better assessment of the candidates they have to choose from.

The bill's sponsor in the Assembly -- Dean Murray, a Republican from Long Island -- said at a press conference about the legislation that he was subjected to derogatory statements posted anonymously about him during his last race: "These comments were absolutely horrible and unfortunately if you Google them now you'll still be able to pull up a couple of the comments." [Legislative Gazette]

Where do we start?

There are so many problems with this legislation, it's hard to pick a place to start. (The sponsors may very well know this bill has little or no chance -- it could just be a bid to draw attention to the issue. See: the proposed ban on salt in restaurant food.) But here it goes:

1. There's a long history in this country of anonymous speech being free speech -- and in many situations, a government requirement that someone out themselves is almost certainly unconstitutional. New York's own courts have addressed this matter (though the issue is complicated). [EFF] [Citizen Media Law Project]

2. As a writer at Wired pointed out this week, the bill doesn't include a provision for the person complaining about a comment to identify him or herself. It's essentially a "heckler's veto," as one attorney described it to Wired. [Wired]

3. The internet is everywhere, and this law would only apply in New York, which is a potential problem. For example: even though AOA is about one very specific part of New York, the actual server that hosts the website is in... California. You could probably argue that by having a physical presence in the state, a website would be subject to the law (the way Amazon has to pay sales tax here) -- but that's not in the legislation.

4. Anonymity can be used for good: to blow the whistle, to protect someone, to express oneself, for privacy.

Of course, anonymity also causes problems. You don't have to look too far online to see how. A lot of online comment sections have become a cesspool of venom and obnoxiousness. People say all sorts of things online that they wouldn't say in person because they don't have to look the other person in the eye. And the web, Google especially, never forgets. (Tangent: maybe it should be able to some in cases.)

But we don't need the government "fixing" this problem. If an online posting is part of a crime or civil proceeding, there are already avenues for the related evidence to be surfaced. And in the vast majority of the other situations, though it may sometimes be distasteful, it's not currently illegal in this country to be a jerk.

Could the situation be better? Absolutely. Active moderation by sites makes a big difference. We sometimes spend an unfortunate amount of time here at AOA dealing with comments -- but it's effort that ultimately pays off. As Anil Dash succinctly pointed out: "If your website's full of assholes, it's your fault."

[via Fake Sheldon Silver]


Cyberbullying wah wah wah. Nobody gave a crap about bullying when I was a kid getting beat up every day. Now that it's big on the internet, holy cow we'd better do something about it! Forget curing cancer, forget poverty and unemployment and the economy, let's stop the cyberbullying!

And will somebody please pass a law that says that if you don't know anything about the internet you are not allowed to pass a law limiting it's usage? Idiots.

This is what the internet was made for, DUH! Yeah, I hate trolls as much as the next guy, but C'mon. I pride myself on being a complete jackass, and shall continue, because that is the American way! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

Re: only allowing people that know things about things to pass a law limiting said things... Indeed... Especially the proudly ignorant.

I have a lot of unkind things to say regarding this, so I'll limit my comment to "Hoo boy, I hope somebody somewhere read that constitution thingie..."

Bullying in all forms stinks, but the dinosaur that is legislation is not the way to fix this.

In addition to the excellent points you've made, this is so close to some of the provisions of SOPA that it really reflects either a lack of awareness of the entire debate or a remarkable tone-deafness. Very similarly to the provisions that would automatically assume copyright infringement and require action upon a single complaint (likely to come from a corporation, not a victimized party), this would instantly be manipulated for corporate and political reasons, and do zero to eliminate the problem it's supposed to be trying to solve.

The flamin' Federalist Papers were anonymous, for crying out loud. And so were the Anti-Federalist Papers. Guess what? Both sides were filled with negative statements. Somehow the republic survived.

What a cluster.

A lot of people stay anonymous or pseudonymous to protect THEMSELVES from bullies, especially on progressive blog and sites.

Anyway, no way this passes constitutional muster.

Regarding trying to prevent people from posting anonymous criticism of local businesses:

1. Would it still be okay to anonymously criticize non-local businesses?

2. What about businesses who anonymously post positive reviews to try to get good publicity? It would be okay for them to post what might be false, but positive information but it would not be okay for an actual customer to anonymously post negative, but true information?

Here's my favorite part:

"The legislation will help cut down on the types of mean-spirited and baseless political attacks that add nothing to the real debate and merely seek to falsely tarnish the opponent's reputation by using the anonymity of the Web."

It's funny because the pundits on talk radio and cable news don't enjoy anonymity, yet they still find a way to make, "mean-spirited and baseless political attacks that add nothing to the real debate and merely seek to falsely tarnish the opponent's reputation."

Cyber bullying is no joke. But also people need to get a thicker skin for legitimate criticism.

Sounds like the bill sponsors are a couple of politicians who are a little butthurt about something someone said about them online, and are trying to bring the law down as some sort of "bullying the bully" retaliation.

Just a bunch of overpaid crybabies.

Cyberbullying isn't the issue, it's one of the ingredients in kids' suicides and such..and the problem is the depression and the anxiety these kids have, taking away anonyminity is just another stupid idea that won't help. Why can't we focus on identifying our friends and family members who seem to display warning signs.

Thanks AOA for bringing this to our attention.

It's a well intended fantasy that shows we still have some folks in Albany who don't understand how the Internet works.

Bill Pytlovany
BillP Studios

It's true, comment sections can be the virtual cesspool of the internet - opinions are like cowboy hats.

I think that the most important part of this post is this: "The bill's sponsor in the Assembly -- Dean Murray, a Republican from Long Island... "

The fact that the Assembly sponsor is a Republican tells you right there it's going nowhere. Like, ever.

I hope they also pass a similar law against people who can't seem to use they're, there and their correctly in a sentence, because their terrorizing the English language.

I hereby certify that the above is my name.

If I want to be anonymous then I should be so as to be a free guy from ny. I will take the consequences of anonymous posting, cyber bullies that are anonymous should not be read anyway.

The relentless 24/7 bullying that is a contributing factor to school-age suicide occurs on social networks, not news sites. That is a REAL problem, not to be confused with some pol having it up to here with anonymous online commenters making fun of his hairy mole or some such nonsense.

Reputable sites moderate. The sites that don't moderate are generally broader interest sites like yahoo or topix that use ap feed or linked content. Maybe, given the lack of original or unique content, the chance to spew anonymous venom/nonsense is the only draw these sites have?

I agree with Lucy, but I must point out.. it's hard to show my mom ANY GIVEN YOUTUBE CLIP without having her see disgustingly graphic (and usually sexual) comments underneath it. So while I'm all for anonymity, and even witty trolling to some extent, I do think this issue extends beyond skeevy websites and it's gotten way out of hand. I don't know what the answer is, or even if there is an answer. Certainly not this legislation, that's for sure.

Another bill written, AGAIN, by people who have exactly zero clue how the Internet actually works.

More effective would be public pressure on content sites to develop better filtering tools for their users. Something as simple as an optional profanity filter would hide vast tracks of idiocy on Facebook and Youtube.

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