Mar. 15, 2006 – New Jersey lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow individuals or corporations to easily find out the identity of anonymous writers who criticize them over the Internet.
Civil liberties groups warn the proposed bills violate existing laws and would discourage free speech in Cyberspace.
One of the two proposals, introduced by Assembly Members Wilfredo Caraballo and Upendra Chivukula, would require the operators of Net-based forums to remove any information that someone considers "defamatory and offensive." It also requires the website operator to disclose personal information about allegedly offending users to parties accusing them of defamation.
The other bill, introduced by Assemblyman Peter J. Biondi, would require anyone operating a website to collect the names and addresses of people who post information publicly on their website. It also requires website operators to establish procedures to disclose that information to people about whom false or defamatory information is published online.
A coalition of groups fighting nationwide for increased protection for anonymous Internet users sent a letter to the lawmakers Monday asking them to withdraw the legislation.
"Forced identification of anonymous speakers on the Internet would create a chilling effect on the speech not only of the persons whose identity is revealed, but on many other persons as well," reads the letter, which is signed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Craigslist, Public Citizen, the US Internet Industry Association (USIIA) and other various interested parties. The groups are especially critical of the Caraballo-Chivukula proposal for "unmasking speakers and squelching speech based on a mere allegation of defamation, before any court has the opportunity to consider the competing claims and conduct a constitutional assessment of the claims."
The letter also tells lawmakers that the bills violate the New Jersey and the US Constitutions so would likely be struck down by courts. Passage of the bills would thus only serve to waste taxpayersâ€™ money on legal fees, the signers argue.
The groups say current New Jersey law provides adequate protections against online defamation and anonymous speech by allowing courts to review complaints for legitimacy before forcing the revelation of an Internet userâ€™s identity. They fear that allowing individuals or corporations to discover the identities of critics without first having to validate their defamation claim would open dissenters to harassment and retaliation.
"Protecting anonymity is vital to maintaining the diversity of viewpoints on the Internet," said EFF staff attorney Kurt Opsahl in a statement about the letter. "Keeping online debates robust enables democracy, even if it allows name-calling and strongly worded opinions about political figures."