Declan McCullagh is Cnet’s chief political correspondent and an ardent champion of civil liberties, EFF-style*. He runs the Politech e-mail list, a place where such stories as the Little Red Book hoax are given wide currency and writes a column on civil liberties for Cnet, which most recently consists of a hysterical misconstruction of the telephone harassment provision added to the Violence Against Women Act. I’m no fan of VAWA, which is mainly a barrel of pork to fund “feminist” advocacy groups and has very little to do with reducing violence, but McCullough’s interpretation of the harassment law is completely ridiculous:
It’s no joke. Last Thursday, President Bush signed into law a prohibition on posting annoying Web 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.
Well actually, it is a joke, as Cal Lanier explains:
Jeff Jarvis and others are upset about a News.com story declaring that President Bush made it a crime to write annoying comments on the internet. But perhaps the ranters didn’t read the source material.
Section 113 of the Violence Against Women Act adds a parameter to the telephone harassment law’s definition of “telecommunications device”: include any device or software that can be used to originate telecommunications or other types of communications.
The definition already excludes “an interactive computer service”, defined as any information service, system, or access software provider, which should eliminate Internet postings from consideration, unless I’m missing something.
Here’s the important part of the new definition: includes any device or software that can be used to originate telecommunications .
If that doesn’t ring a bell, you probably aren’t familiar with the battle to define VOIP (voice over internet protocol). The previous law assumed that all phone calls would be made via a “telecommunications service” using a “telecommunications device”. The FCC has consistently found that VOIP is an unregulated “information service”, thus exempting it from all sorts of fees and services. A VOIP call may be functionally indistinguishable from a landline or cell phone call. Legally, though, it’s not a telecommunications service and doesn’t require the use of a telecommunications device. Adding the new text to the definition removes a potential loophole and ensures that VOIP calls will be treated just as any other telephone call.
and Orin Kerr concurs:
This is just the perfect blogosphere story, isn’t it? It combines threats to bloggers with government incompetence and Big Brother, all wrapped up and tied togther with a little bow. Unsurprisingly, a lot of bloggers are taking the bait.
Skeptical readers will be shocked, shocked to know that the truth is quite different. First, a little background. The new law amends 47 U.S.C. 223, the telecommunications harassment statute that goes back to the Communications Act of 1934. For a long time, Section 223 has had a provision prohibiting anonymous harassing speech using a telephone. 47 U.S.C. 223(a)(1)(C) states that
[whoever] makes a telephone call or utilizes a telecommunications device, whether or not conversation or communication ensues, without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person at the called number or who receives the communications . . . shall be [punished].
Seems pretty broad, doesn’t it? Well, there’s a hook. It turns out that the statute can only be used when prohibiting the speech would not violate the First Amendment. If speech is protected by the First Amendment, the statute is unconstitutional as applied and the indictment must be dismissed.
This isn’t the first time McCullough has gone over the deep end on a story like this, and not the first time that bloggers have fallen for it, esp. those who suffer from Bush Derangement Syndrome.
*The EFF is an ersatz civil liberties organization that’s more concerned with virtual rights than real ones. They’re more worried about the fact that the Patriot Act enables the Justice Department to look at your library records, which they don’t actually do, than with the fact that Title IV-D of the Social Security Act enables child support agencies to data-mine bank accounts and utility records, which they do, and to imprison debtors without right to counsel, even innocent ones, as they also do. I have very little respect for rights groups who think it’s more important to collect child support than to defeat Al Qaeda; crazy, I know.