Internet Speech Bills

by Gabe Bullard on March 5, 2008

In November, Megan Meier’s suicide over abusive communications via MySpace made headlines all over the country. Megan, a girl in suburban St. Louis had been harassed by a schoolmate’s mother who was posing as a boy Megan’s age on MySpace. Megan’s death and the subsequent court cases brought social networks into the mainstream consciousness.

 Almost everyone probably knew about MySpace, but the seriousness of the Meier case (and the increasing popularity and financial viability of Facebook) showed that social networks were no longer a niche function of the web.

Like other legislative bodies, the Kentucky General Assembly has been considering bills that would restrict online speech. One bill would outlaw abusive internet communications. This is similar to bills proposed in Missouri after Meier’s death.

Bills like this have been criticized for vague language, with people asking what exactly constitutes abusive language. Almost any message board or blog has comments and posts ranging from mildly insulting to obscenely abusive. It seems to be par for the course for web posters.

And the language of web postings brings up a new piece of legislation. Republican Tim Couch proposed a bill that would make anyone commenting on a blog register with their real name, address and e-mail address. Furthermore, it would require webmasters to make that information available to the government or else face fines of $500 for the first offense and $1,000 for each one after that.

 When I was conducting interviews for my ConnectKentucky piece, I found out that independent technology professionals are sometimes called on to consult politicians on tech legislation. But judging from the amount of negative comments about tech legislation on websites like Wired.com (and the jokes about Senator Ted Stevens’ “Series of Tubes” comment), it looks like that kind of consulting doesn’t happen very often.

So, are Kentucky‘s two bills an example of legislators not doing their homework or are they practical ways to protect young people? Post below and voice your opinion.

One side note, Couch’s legislation seems like a promotion of the techie-praised OpenID program.

 

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