Naughty Netters

If everyone agrees that having a state law against on-line harassment is such a good idea, then why does almost everyone have problems with the one now proposed?

On January 31 state Delegate Samuel "Sandy" Rosenberg (D-42nd District) introduced House Bill 778, which would expand the current state law prohibiting the use of the telephone to "annoy, abuse, torment, harass, or embarrass" people to include "electronic mail or similar electronic communication."

On the face of it, a law against on-line harassment seems overdue. Take the case of Jayne Hitchcock. Late last year her E-mail account was mail-bombed, and her phone number was spammed across Usenet, touted as some sort of free sex-chat line. When she approached Anne Arundel County police, they didn't know how to handle the case, she says. Only by suing her alleged harasser could she find relief.

"If today someone were to go through the same thing I did, there is literally nothing they can do about it," Hitchcock tells me by phone from her Crofton home. Corporal Michael Donhauser of the Maryland State Police Computer Crimes Unit agrees: "Presently there are no laws on computer harassment."

Nonetheless Rosenberg's bill has drawn criticism from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the noted cyber-rights advocacy group. EFF Director Stanton McCandlish calls it "half-cocked" and "ridiculously unconstitutional."

McCandlish, whose group is known for its civil-libertarian stance, agrees that on-line harassment is a serious-and growing-problem, but he says HB 778 isn't the solution. "The wording is vague and overbroad. No one was ever guaranteed the right not to be annoyed or embarrassed," he tells me by phone, mocking the bill's language.

Another person who finds the bill's wording too vague is-surprise-Jayne Hitchcock. Although she supports HB 778, she says she is uncomfortable about incorporating terms such as "annoy" and "embarrass." After all, being annoyed or embarrassed are common dangers on the Net.

Hitchcock and McCandlish aren't the only critics. Rosenberg says he has received numerous complaints via E-mail which raise questions about the bill's free-speech implications, so he asked Maryland Assistant Attorney General Kathryn Rowe to study the existing law's constitutionality as it applies to telephone use. Rowe replied in a February 7th letter that the courts have determined that the existing proscriptions are constitutional as long as they are applied only to calls made "with the specific intent to harass, threaten, or abuse the recipient." Criminal statutes, Rowe explained to me in an interview, tend to be interpreted very narrowly by the courts.

That's good enough for Rosenberg. He insisted during an interview that the law will not interfere with "protected political speech" but will merely extend laws that already apply to the telephone. As he wrote in a response to the E-mail complaints, "If conduct can be constitutionally restricted in another medium, it can be limited on the Internet."

It's Rosenberg's use of the word "Internet" here that irks McCandlish-it's another vague term. "We need to draw more careful distinctions," he argues. Unlike the telephone, which is used largely for one-to-one conversation, the "Internet" is everything from encrypted messages only the recipients can read to Usenet posts accessible to millions. "This law is taking a medium that is more like newspapers and putting restrictions on speech," McCandlish told C-Net, an on-line news service.

Rowe seems to be in agreement with both Rosenberg and McCandlish. Her February 7th letter to the legislator suggests narrowing the bill to just "electronic mail," leaving out "similar electronic communications." When I spoke with her she said it "might be advisable" to make even further distinctions-between private E-mail and mailing lists, for example.

But Rosenberg is adamant about not substantively changing the wording of the bill before its March 5th hearing. As it stands, HB 778 is as vague as last year's ill-fated federal Communications Decency Act.

Maryland is not alone in trying to deal with on-line harassment. Other states have recently passed or are considering legislation on the issue. The trouble is, according to McCandlish, that elected officials are more anxious to appear cyber-savvy to their constituents than they are to find out how cyberspace actually works. Hence these laws are either redundant-proscribing behavior already barred by existing laws-or so vague as to be blatantly unconstitutional.

No doubt Rosenberg is angling to appear cyber-savvy. He is one of only a handful of members of the Maryland House of Delegates to have a privately run Web page (Sandy Rosenberg). In the past he's introduced legislation dealing with the thorny topic of computer privacy. Well, this is his-and the Maryland legislature's-big chance. They can either draft a sensible, Net-knowledgeable harassment law that the rest of the country can use as an example, or they can just push through another dumb censorship law that, if passed, will end up being struck down in court. The choice is theirs-and yours.

A hearing on HB 778 is scheduled for 1 P.M. March 5 in the House Office Building, room 120, in Annapolis. Anyone wishing to testify must sign the witness register before the hearing begins. Call 841-3488 for more information.

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Updated on February 18, 1997

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