Good Intentions

New York Lawmakers Surprised That Some People Think Anonymous Comments Are Free Speech

State legislators were swamped with blowback today over the proposed Internet Protection Act.
slander New York Lawmakers Surprised That Some People Think Anonymous Comments Are Free Speech

(Image: flickr.com/jbcurio)

New York legislators involved with the proposed Internet Protection Act are getting a lot of calls today, and they’re not quite sure why. The bill was introduced weeks ago to a quiet reception but seems to have become controversial overnight.

“Assemblyman Jim Conte is just a co-sponsor on the bill,” an exasperated aide answered when Betabeat called for a quote about the proposed law, which would require online publishers to remove anonymous comments upon request. “I don’t know why today’s the day, but today’s the day that everyone is calling on this,” Republican Tom O’Mara, who introduced the bill in the senate, told Betabeat. “Something was posted somewhere, I guess.”

It must have been that Wired story; or maybe it was the pickup on Slashdot. But the proposed legislation, “in relation to protecting a person’s right to know who is behind an anonymous internet posting,” has provoked chagrin, to say the least, in the blogosphere.

Critics say the bill constitutes censorship and an undue burden on publishers’ backs. Proponents say it will combat against cyberbullying like the abuse that allegedly led to Long Island’s Alexis Pilkington’s suicide.

The bill originated with Assemblyman Dean Murray, who has some experience with anonymous online commenters himself. Faceless detractors used the web in 2010 to spread rumors that Assemb. Murray was guilty of domestic violence against his ex-wife and son.

“The thing that disturbed me the most about it was, once everything was proven false, there was no way to get the comments down,” Assemb. Murray said. “The important thing here is to give the victims a voice and an opportunity to protect themselves.”

dean murray New York Lawmakers Surprised That Some People Think Anonymous Comments Are Free Speech

Assemb. Murray.

Under the bill, publishers would be required to dedicate a phone number or email address to receiving complaints about comments. If someone who is directly harmed by the comment challenges a comment, the publisher must take action. The bill as it’s written now would require publishers to either collect, verify and publish contact information for the commenter in question—or else remove the comment.

It’s similar to the policy many newspapers have for letters to the editor, he said. The legislation would also protect small businesses from anonymous reviews, he said.

“I’m hoping that we can have the governor join on board. He announced this week that he wants to crack down on cyberbullying,” Assemb. Murray said. “This does not infringe on anyone’s first amendment rights.”

Over in the state senate, his  counterpart wasn’t so sure. Sen. O’Mara said the initial reaction to the bill was positive and seemed taken aback to discover today that some constituents consider the proposal a violation of free speech.

“Obviously this presses upon the basic foundation of our Constitution and whether this will comport with that or not is something that we’re going to be evaluating,” he said. “Obviously we’re not going to look to move forward with legislation that’s in violation of the first amendment.”

Had Sen. O’Mara heard of any instances of cyberbullying in his district? “Just anecdotally, I guess,” he said. “I don’t have any specific things that come off the top of my head now, just complaints about comments that are posted that are baseless, that are false, and are troublesome to say the least.”

Follow Adrianne Jeffries on Twitter or via RSS. ajeffries@observer.com