Trolling Now a Federal Crime

Posted on January 9, 2006

A vague new law could mean criminal penalties for annoying people anonymously on the Internet. A News.com article by Declan McCullagh points out that annoying someone online through an anonymous blog post, blog comment, message board thread, email, IMs, etc. is now a federal crime with a maximum sentence of two years in prison thanks to a new law President Bush signed last week.

McCullagh says, "This ridiculous prohibition, which would likely imperil much of Usenet, is buried in the so-called Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act. Criminal penalties include stiff fines and two years in prison."

Marv Johnson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, told CNET, "The use of the word 'annoy' is particularly problematic. What's annoying to one person may not be annoying to someone else."

U.S. blog trolls, blog comment trolls and message board trolls will need to start using their real name to annoy others if this new law is to be believed. It raises questions not only for blogs but for services like Craigslist, Match.com, Flickr or del.icio.us where some people are not using their real names when they initially post ads or share links. The link or photograph you shared was annoying -- go to jail. One could go on and on with more examples of how absurd this is.

Here is the exact wording of the new new federal law: "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."

There are already existing laws to cover issues like harassment, stalking and spam so it is difficult to imagine why a new law that uses a vague word like "annoy" is even necessary.

Update: Boing Boing has an update on the legal controversy surrounding this annoying new law.