"Words Hurt" Legislation Hurts Everybody

Unemployment is up. Sales tax revenues are down. Public schools are struggling for funding. Our highways and bridges are falling apart more and more with every snowfall. Yet our brilliant state legislature continues to waste time with silly, needless, and faulty legislation.

There’s a number of bills of this sort that I could spend a few hours babbling against, but there’s one bill that’s been introduced that directly affects me. Being a self-absorbed baboon, that’s obviously what I’m here today to whine about. House Bill #1277 should be renamed the “Words Hurt” bill, as some of our elected officials just don’t like the idea that online peeps aren’t always nice.

This isn’t a new issue for me, as I’ve been on mailing lists, message boards, blogs (obviously), myspace, facebook, video conferencing programs, twitter, and other interactive online methods of communication for over fifteen years. I’m currently on a couple of message boards devoted to two satellite radio shows, and another couple devoted to the Replacements. Add to that a handful of local blogs devoted to state and local issues, and it’s obvious that I have no life.

At times, the discussions in all of these “communities” can get pretty heated, and sometimes controversial. The reactions to “board drama” ranges from completely ignoring the community (ala Paul Westerberg), or to waste hours of airtime bitching about “faceless, nameless losers sitting in their parent’s basements” (ala Opie and Anthony).

At the heart of the matter, and the basis of this dumb bill, is the fact that in almost every online community the people are somewhat anonymous. With few exceptions, you choose a screen name the minute you sign up, and you decide afterwards just how open you are about your real persona. For the most part, people are fairly consistent on their usernames. For example, I’m “paulisded” everywhere except on Facebook, but I’ve never hid who I am. Personally, I believe that everybody should be open about their identity, as if you’re going to throw shots at people you should be willing to live with the consequences good or bad.

That’s just me, though, and as much as I believe in being open and honest, it’s not something that should be legislated…especially since it is already possible for people who believe they’ve been defamed to file “John Doe” lawsuits that allow one to subpoena IP addresses and other online data.

The “Words Hurt” bill puts this liability on the blog owner. Under this bill, bloggers would have to keep records on everybody who comments on their site. Guess what? We don’t have access to this data! Many blog services, including the one you’re reading right now, don’t provide that data, and even if they did there are so many “hidden-proxy” programs that it would be impossible to truly regulate (not to mention how this bill would handle out-of-state, let alone foreign postings).

As the Madville Times points out, this bill has the potential to stifle intelligent conversation:

HB 1277 and 1278 make it harder for regular folks to blog. Everyone who wants to use the Internet to express herself, whether about the neighborhood or unicorns or John Thune's or Tim Johnson's ineffectiveness as Senator, has to become a techno-whiz. Most of the bloggers I know are perfectly willing to take responsibility for their words. Require them to learn about IP identification and proxies and maintain records of everyone else's speech, and they'll be inclined to say, "Forget it. I'm not a techie, and I'm not a cop." And at that point, a lot of good voices disappear.

Even without the fact that it’s not possible to gather the required information, the benign nature of the majority of local blogs renders this bill unnecessary. Blog-owners routinely remove offensive comments; too many don’t allow comments at all. Even those that have an “anything goes” mantra have little to worry, as Dakota Today owner Douglas Wiken points out. “The best weapon against anonymous, fallacious comments is criticism of those anonymous posts and providing truth as an antidote, (along with) a healthy skepticism with regard to the validity of information in posts by those unwilling to include their actual names.”


Anonymous said…
It started out pretty good, with a central theme that prioritized State issues. “Unemployment is up. Sales tax revenues are down. Public schools are struggling for funding. Our highways and bridges are falling apart more and more with every snowfall.”
And then you focused concern on an issue that the judicial branch normally takes care of. Bad legislation from Pierre, and why the ACLU would do its duty by sticking its boot up the State’s rear end. I don’t worry about it because I send the union donations, and they take care of business.
So I’ll suggest what legislation should’ve been the blog topic. The defeat of House bill 1198, and why 92 municipalities needed a temporary sales tax penny to provide badly needed funding for crucial needs. Right: the first part of your essay. See it wasn’t just about an events center funding request. Other communities had needs that were even more important.
So you think the taxpayers got a break? I graduated with one of the members of the House Local Government Committee, and he said the State needs to increase the sales tax by one penny to balance the budget. It’s easier than cutting the education budget, and less risky for incumbents running for re-election.

Kurt the Troll

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