State laws that restrict Internet contested





New York, Georgia — Internet speech is under attack not only by federal lawmakers but state lawmakers as well. Both Georgia and New York last year enacted state laws censoring certain types of speech on the Internet and other states are considering legislation.

The new rules succeeded in instigating local legal battles over the constitutionality of the laws.

The Georgia law makes it illegal to use a name that “falsely identifies” a speaker on the Internet, without distinguishing whether the person communicating had any intent to deceive or defraud or simply wanted to keep his or her identity unknown. The American Civil Liberties Union, leading a small group of plaintiffs, filed a suit in January seeking to enjoin the law’s enactment in ACLU v. Miller. According to the ACLU, it is the first such challenge to state Internet censorship laws.

Assemblyman Don L. Parsons, (R-Marietta) who introduced the bill, said he felt there needed to be a “penalty for a company that puts out information electronically that misrepresents itself.”

Opposition to the law centers around the fact that because the law does not define “use,” people wishing to remain anonymous for security or privacy reasons may be denied the right to do so.

“In some cases, anonymity is a necessary security measure,” said ACLU National Attorney Ann Beeson. “The personal safety of human rights dissidents, domestic abuse victims and whistle-blowers would be compromised if they could not communicate anonymously.”

Use of pseudonyms or anonymous identities also eliminates the potential for gender or racial discrimination and harassment, Beeson said, and allows users to access controversial, embarrassing or sensitive information without revealing their identity.

Parsons said he felt the law has nothing to do with anonymity. “It does not prevent [anonymity] at all,” Parsons said. He said he felt the ACLU and co-plaintiff Electronic Frontiers Foundation are not really concerned with anonymity rights. “They are against any [Internet] law made by the state or national government,” Parsons said.

The Georgia law has been in effect since July 1, 1996. New York also entered into the on-line censorship business after it enacted a statute that makes it a crime to disseminate over the Internet “indecent” materials that are “harmful to minors.”

The law became effective in November last year, but not without opposition. This January, the ACLU, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association (ALA) and others filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction against the New York statute.

The New York decency law closely resembles the federal Communications Decency Act.

The original act has since been amended to exclude libraries and other service providers.

Under the original bill, librarians would have been placed in the “untenable position of having to second-guess what is going to be appropriate for individual computer users,” said Judith Krug, director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom.

Assemblywoman RoAnn M. Destito (D-Utica) who co-authored the bill, said the amendments were made to silence the opposition from libraries. “The protections for libraries are right there in black and white,” Destito said.

However, debate continues to stir over the bill’s broad restrictions on the content of communications.

Executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union Norman Siegel said the law “could send a person to prison for up to four years for talking about safer sex, or displaying online classic nudes or other artistic images.”

Krug said the law fails to distinguish between material that may be “harmful” to very young minors and material that may be “harmful” to teenagers.

Meanwhile, the ALA is advancing the notion that the vast amount of helpful and important information online substantially outweighs the risk of children being exposed to inappropriate material.

There have been two arrests under the New York law.

The ACLU has requested preliminary injunctions to prohibit the enforcement of both states’ laws, but the courts have yet to rule on their requests.


reports, Spring 1997