A Skeptical Look at "Create an E-annoyance, Go to Jail": Declan McCullagh has penned a column that is custom-designed to race around the blogosphere. It begins:
  Annoying someone via the Internet is now a federal crime.
  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.
  "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."
  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. An example of this is United States v. Popa, 187 F.3d 672 (D.C. Cir. 1999). In Popa, the defendant called the U.S. Attorney for D.C on the telephone several times, and each time would hurl insults at the U.S. Attorney without identifying himself. He was charged under 47 U.S.C. 223(a)(1)(C), and raised a First Amendment defense. Writing for a unanimous panel, Judge Ginsburg reversed the conviction: punishing the speech violated the Supreme Court's First Amendment test in United States v. O'Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968), he reasoned, such that the statute was unconstitutional as applied to those facts.

  Under cases like Popa, 47 U.S.C. 223(a)(1)(C) is broad on its face but narrow in practice. That is, the text looks really broad, but prosecutors know that they can't bring a prosecution unless doing so would comply with the Supreme Court's First Amendment cases.

  That brings us to the new law. The new law simply expands the old law so that it applies to the Internet as well as the telephone network. It does this by taking the old definition of "telecommunications device" from 47 U.S.C. 223(h), which used to be telephone-specific, and expanding it in this context to include "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."

  Now I suppose you can criticize Congress for being lazy. They haven't rewritten the old 1934 statute in light of the modern First Amendment, and that has resulted in a criminal statute that looks much broader than it actually is. The new law expands the preexisting law by amending the definition of "telecommunications device," which maintains the same gap between the law on the books and the law in practice. The formulation is a bit awkward. But the key point for our purposes is that the law is not the "ridiculous" provision Declan imagines. It looks funny if you don't know the relevant caselaw, but in practice it simply takes the telephone harassment statute we've had for decades and applies it to the Internet.

  UPDATE: Cal Lanier takes a look, and concludes that this is just about making sure the telephone harassment law applies to VOIP.
Annoying Anonymous Speech Online:

People are troubled by a just-enacted statute that extends part of telephone harassment law to the Internet. I think they're right to be troubled by it, and here's why.

First, the statute, with deletions marked by strikeouts and insertions marked by underlines:

47 U.S.C. § 223(a)(1)(C): Whoever ... in interstate or foreign communications ... 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....

(h)(1) The use of the term “telecommunications device” in this section --
(A) shall not impose new obligations on broadcasting station licensees and cable operators covered by obscenity and indecency provisions elsewhere in this chapter; and
(B) does not include an interactive computer service [= any information service, system, or access software provider that provides or enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server, including specifically a service or system that provides access to the Internet and such systems operated or services offered by libraries or educational institutions].; and
(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

What does this practically mean?

1. This potentially criminalizes any anonymous speech on a Web site that's intended to annoy at least some readers, even if it's also intended to inform other readers. This is true whether the poster is berating a government official, a religious figure, a company that he thinks provides bad service, an academic who he thinks is doing or saying something misguided, a sports figure who he thinks is misbehaving, or what have you; so long as he's trying to annoy any recipient (whether the target, if the poster thinks the target is reading the blog, or the target's partisans or fans).

2. How is this different from traditional telephone harassment law? The trouble is that the change extends traditional telephone harassment law from a basically one-to-one medium (phone calls) to include a one-to-many medium (Web sites).

This is a big change. One-to-one speech that's intended to annoy the one recipient is rarely of very much First Amendment value; people are just rarely persuaded or enlightened by speech that's intended to annoy them. It has some value (see item 3 below), but to the extent that it's in some measure deterred, the loss to public debate isn't that great — speakers are still free to speak to others besides the person they're trying to annoy.

But one-to-many speech that is intended to annoy one or a few readers, but intended and likely to enlighten or persuade many other readers, is potentially much more valuable. Juan might think that the target of the speech deserves to be berated for his misconduct, and that the target's supporters deserve to be berated for siding with the target; but Juan might also want the rest of the public to hear about the target's misbehavior, and to be persuaded to think less of the target, or to act differently themselves.

Though the desire to annoy may sometimes be petty (and I'm using Juan just because Juan is our one anonymous coblogger here, not because Juan generally tries to annoy people!), it shouldn't strip the speech of constitutional protection. "[I]n the world of debate about public affairs, many things done with motives that are less than admirable are protected by the First Amendment.... [E]ven when a speaker or writer is motivated by hatred or ill will his expression was protected by the First Amendment ...." And the same is true, I think, in discussion of consumer matters, of religion, of sports, and of other things, not just public affairs.

3. Orin suggests that this isn't a problem, because even traditional telephone harassment law has already been limited to exclude "speech [that] is protected by the First Amendment." Orin cites United States v. Popa, a case that set aside as unconstitutional a conviction of Ion Popa, who made several racist calls to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia (the chief federal prosecutor in the District). The trouble, though, is that it's far from clear just what speech Popa protects.

A. One possible interpretation of Popa is that it bars telephone harassment prosecution when the "speech is protected by the First Amendment." At some level, that's almost tautological — of course when the speech is protected by the First Amendment, the First Amendment prohibits prosecution for that speech. But it also returns us to the underlying question: When is speech that's intended to annoy the recipient protected by the First Amendment? If someone calls not a prosecutor but a law professor and leaves an anonymous deliberately annoying racist message, is that protected? What if he calls a law student with such a message? What if he posts an anonymous blog post that says this? The poster would have little guidance about what he may or may not say.

Of course, when prosecuted, the speaker can say "my speech is protected by the First Amendment." But given that the statute draws no distinction between what constitutes protected annoying anonymous speech and what constitutes unprotected annoying anonymous speech, the speaker doesn't know what he may safely say, and the prosecutor doesn't have much guidance about what he should prosecute. It's as if Congress enacted a whole bunch of speech restrictions but tacked on an "except if the First Amendment prohibits this" to them. The result would be speech restrictions that are technically not overbroad (since by their terms they don't bar First-Amendment-protected speech), but that are practically too vague, since they provide little guidance to people about what they may say.

B. Another possible view is that the telephone harassment statute bars any prosecution for speech unless the speech falls within the traditional First Amendment exceptions, such as threats, obscenity (which means hard-core pornography), false statements of fact, fighting words, and the like. These exceptions are at least tolerably well-defined, and all of us already generally have to avoid speech that falls within these exceptions (since the federal and state governments have taken advantage of most of these exceptions to in fact outlaw or at least make tortious speech that fits in the exceptions).

But if that's the interpretation of Popa, then most garden-variety telephone harassment, of the sort that most people assume is fully prosecutable, would be unpunishable. Calling someone anonymously simply to insult them wouldn't be covered (such insults don't fit within the "fighting words" exception, since the anonymity and distance of the speaker makes it unlikely that the speech will start a fight). Likewise for calling someone to make an indecent suggestion, except when the suggestion is an actual threat of violence or is so sexually explicit as to be obscene (which is a pretty high threshold to meet). The very premise of telephone harassment law, as it's generally understood, is that some such speech — while protected in many media — is unprotected when said with the intent to annoy (and perhaps said to a particular person). Harassment law thus rests on the theory that there should be a new First Amendment exception recognized for "telephone harassment" that goes beyond just threats, fighting words, and the like. So the "speech is protected unless it's threats, fighting words, obscenity, incitement, or false statements of fact" theory is thus almost certainly not what Congress has had in mind, and is unlikely to be adopted by the courts.

C. Popa can easily be read, I think, as holding that speech that's "intend[ed] in part to communicate a political message" is protected from punishment by the statute. But it's far from clear that this would protect speech on a Web site that's intended to communicate a message about some company's allegedly mistreatment of its consumers, that's intended to criticize the performance of a sports figure, that's intended to express an annoying view about theology, or whatever else. What's more, it's often not easy to tell exactly what's a "political" message and what's not. The court in Popa held that racist insults of a high-level official are political. What about speech that criticizes law professors (whether racist speech, speech that casts aspersions on their intellect or teaching ability, or what have you)? What about speech that criticizes a particular student in racist terms, but implicitly conveys a message about school admissions? (Not that I would endorse such speech, of course; I just think that (a) it ought to be constitutionally protected, when posted on a Web site, even if it's intended to annoy, and (b) there's likely to be controversy about whether it's political.)

D. Finally, Popa can also be read as holding that speech is protected from the statute when the speaker "intend[ed] to engage in public or political discourse." "Public discourse" is broader than just "political message," and would certainly include religion and probably consumer matters involving large businesses and the like. But it too is a pretty vague term. Is publicly distributed personal criticism of a particular professional's skills, for instance, a lawyer's or a professor's, "public discourse"? There's no well-established First Amendment test for this, and the Court's use of the related term "public concern" has proven to be unpredictable and, I think, often misguided (see Part V.B of this article, starting with PDF page 46).

So on balance I think the extension of the telephone harassment statute to the Web is a mistake. The statute already has problems, and the extension risks substantially exacerbating those problems, by potentially covering one-to-many annoying Web speech as well as the somewhat less valuable one-to-one annoying telephone calls.

More on One-to-One Speech vs. One-to-Many Speech:

Ten years ago, it turns out, one of my law review articles discussed the problem with applying telephone harassment laws (or even harassment laws that govern one-to-one annoying e-mail) to one-to-many speech. That article pointed out that e-mail harassment laws might punish one-to-many speech posted to e-mail discussion lists; but the analysis equally applies to the recently enacted change to the federal harassment law, which would punish one-to-many speech posted on Web sites.

The bottom line is that, even if it's OK to punish speech that's likely to be annoying and offensive to its sole listener -- on the theory that such speech is unlikely to enlighten or edify, and likely only to annoy -- such restrictions shouldn't be extended to speech that has many listeners, many of whom might find the speech valuable even though it's annoying (perhaps deliberately so) to some other listeners.

New Law Prohibiting Annoying Anonymous Speech Online:

[HUGE error in this post, see here, has been corrected; my apologies.]

The newly enacted federal statute that bans annoying anonymous online speech is now part of the basis for a lawsuit against a Web site operator. Anthony DiMeo, III, a Philadelphia businessman, actor, and heir is suing Tucker Max, a Web site operator, blogger, and bulletin board proprietor over some anonymous posts on Max's bulletin board. The first count of the Complaint alleges libel, but the second count alleges a violation of the just-enacted statute that outlaws anonymous online speech that's intended to annoy.

As I at first quite missed, but as Orin and commenter Huh? on this post graciously pointed out, this second count is basically frivolous -- the statute is a criminal statute, which doesn't give rise to a civil cause of action by private litigants. And perhaps federal prosecutors would have been solicitious enough of free speech (or uninterested enough in online insults) that they would never bring such a protection.

Nonetheless, on its face, the new federal statute would indeed cover such anonymous insults. The statute applies not just to constitutionally unprotected false statements of fact (as does libel law), but to any statements, whether fact or opinion, false or true, that are made "without disclosing [the speaker's] identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person ... who receives the communications." At least some of the allegedly libelous statements that DiMeo points to indeed seem to be statements of opinion rather than false statements of fact, so the annoying anonymous communication statute potentially provides a remedy beyond what libel law could provide.

I've argued before why this law is constitutionally problematic. I hope that eventually the courts will strike down parts of the law as unconstitutional, or interpret the statute very narrowly to avoid constitutional problems. But for now the law does on its face ban speech that ought to remain protected.

Incidentally, I think Tucker Max, as the operator of the site rather than the poster, should be immune under 47 U.S.C. § 230 from libel liability.

Thanks to My Election Analysis for the pointer.