Calif. Pushes to Protect Online Whistleblowers

In an era where whistleblowers have been the catalysts in some of this century’s most notorious corporate scandals, many political advocates think that protecting the privacy of those who choose to step forward is of crucial importance, particularly in the digital age.

A California Assembly committee agrees with that premise and passed a bill this week intending to do just that.

Assembly Bill 1143 was scribed with the intent to protect online whistleblowers and others who speak out anonymously over the Internet.

The bill was passed by the Assembly Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism and Internet Media Committee.

The author of the bill, Assemblyman Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), says that under current law, the Internet user is disadvantaged and is generally forced to reveal his/her identity unfairly in many situations.

According to Simitian, there must be a balance between protecting the privacy of Internet users and ensuring that legitimate legal claims against anonymous Internet users can be brought forward.

“This bill simply ensures that an Internet user’s rights of due process, privacy, and anonymous free speech are protected,” said Simitian.

Under Simitian’s proposed legislation, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must inform a customer when identifying information is being sought in a civil suit.

The proposed law would provide time and information for the consumer to object to identity disclosure to the court.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a San Francisco-based civil liberties organization in strong support of the proposed law, the idea behind it is to update speech protections into the Internet age so that ISPs, users, and the courts are speaking the same language.

According to EFF, the legislation would not lessen the accountability of Internet users who are subject to valid legal claims, but it would put them on equal footing with their prosecutors.

“People posting information on the Internet have a wide variety of reasons for remaining anonymous, ranging from inappropriate or untimely disclosure of a medical condition, sexual orientation, or gender identity to the potential for facing job loss, harassment, or violence due to their political or social activities,” said EFF in a statement.

Simitian’s legislation would merely ensure that individuals could participate in litigation affecting their privacy, as well as limit lawsuits filed for the sole purpose of discovering the identity of anonymous Internet users.

Among the many advocates of the bill is the Northern California Chapter of the ACLU, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, and Deirdre K. Mulligan, Director of the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at Boalt Hall School of Law at UC Berkeley.

Bill 1143 is expected to be in the hands of the Assembly Judiciary Committee by May 6 where it will either be passed or find its way back to its authors for revision.

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