New Federal Law Criminalizes Internet Annoyances


An new anti-stalking law makes it a federal crime to “annoy” someone over the Internet, reports USA Today. “It’s a stupid law that has slipped in under the radar,” says Clinton Fein, a San Francisco-based artist who runs The law makes it a crime to anonymously “annoy, abuse, threaten or harass” another person over the Internet. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wa.) inserted the provision into legislation that reauthorized the federal Violence Against Women Act. It carries a prison sentence of up to two years and an unspecified fine. McDermott said he was prompted to act by the case of Joelle Ligon, a Seattle woman who was sent menacing e-mails, falsely accused of résumé-padding in messages to co-workers and impersonated in sex-oriented Internet chat rooms from 1998 to 2003.

Barry Steinhardt, a privacy expert at the American Civil Liberties Union, says the law’s chief problem is the “subjective nature” of the word annoy. “Words like threaten, harass and abuse can be defined by what a reasonable person understands them to mean,” he says. “Anyone who’s ever had their spam filter stop something they wanted, or let something through that they didn’t, knows that deciding what is annoying is something else again.”


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