‘Annoying e-Mail’ Law Stirs Blogosphere

A new law extending telephone harassment prohibitions and penalties to anonymous e-mails and Voice over IP calls has raised nary a peep among civil liberty groups and the legal community.

In the blogosphere, however, news of the amended law is prompting an outpouring of concern about free speech and fears that the legislation could impact businesses because it prohibits anonymous e-mails if they are “annoying.”

The provision, contained in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) signed last week by President Bush, amends the existing law to create criminal penalties for anonymous e-mails and VoIP calls sent with the intent to “annoy, abuse, threaten or harass any person.”

VAWA was originally passed in 1994 to protect women from domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. The new version of the bill adds a cyber stalking provision to the legislation that includes anonymous e-mail and Internet-based voice services such as Vonage.

“My initial impression is that it doesn’t seem overly broad,” said Sherwin Siy, a staff counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). “It extends the prohibition of annoying calls to the Internet. It doesn’t seem objectionable to me.”

Siy called attempts to spin the law as an effort to stifle anonymous Internet speech a “very broad interpretation of law.”

Specifically, the law states: “Whoever…utilizes 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… without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person…who receives the communications…shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.”

George Washington University law professor Daniel Solove, who teaches information privacy law and is a prolific legal blogger, also weighed in with several postings cautioning against rushing to judgment.

“Note that ‘annoy’ is part of the intent element of the statute — it requires the intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass. Far from an anti-anonymity provision that applies whenever a person annoys another, it is merely a prohibition on harassment,” Solove wrote in a Boing Boing posting.

Solove added, “I don’t see any basis for the law to apply in this instance.”

Attorney Susan Howley of the National Center for the Victims of Crime, who helped shape the amendment added to the existing VAWA, said, “It’s another tool to stop someone’s harassing behavior.”

“It only extends the current telephone harassment laws to the Internet. It extends the same protections to new forms of communications.”

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