Writing annoying, anonymous online posts or e-mails could land you in jail for as long as two years. That's according to the Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005, which was signed into law last week.
According to a section of the act, anyone who uses the Internet anonymously "with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass another person" can be tried for violating federal telecommunications law and face fines or jail.
The broad language of the law has some online advocates concerned that it could be used to censure the expression of objectionable opinion simply because those opinions annoy someone, but its backers say that is not the case.
"This is about cyberstalking, not free speech," says Mike DeCesare, communications director for the act's author, Representative Jim McDermott (D-Washington). "You may write something and post it online and I may find it annoying, but so what? This isn't what this is about. This is about keeping people, especially women, safe."
Still, Kurt Opsahl, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that has published a guide to safe anonymous blogging, says there is cause for concern.
"It has this very loose term of 'intent to annoy' which encompasses a much greater area of speech than harassment and threat," Opsahl says.
Kathryn Warma, assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington, doubts that bloggers would be prosecuted under the law. Stalking cases, which is what the law is designed to protect against, traditionally have a very high standard for intent. To be arrested and tried for stalking, there must be clear evidence that the accused stalker intended to frighten, intimidate, and harass the victim, she says.
Warma also dismisses complaints by some critics that the bill only prosecutes anonymous harassers but would let named stalkers go. She says existing legislation can be used against a repeated cyberstalker whose identity is known.
McDermott's anticyberstalking legislation came about after the congressman learned about Seattle resident Joelle Ligon. Years after getting married, Ligon began getting anonymous and hard-to-track e-mail messages from someone she believed to be her ex-boyfriend, James Robert Murphy. The messages became increasingly disturbing and threatening. Eventually he sent e-mail to Ligon's coworkers accusing her of misrepresenting her résumé and making it appear she was sending them pornography.
Murphy was sending his e-mail from South Carolina, where it was difficult for Seattle police to pursue him. Eventually, Ligon's case was brought to Warma's attention. Warma was able to prosecute the case under the federal telecommunications law, which regulates telephone communications and protects against harassment. She interpreted the law to include the Internet, allowing the case to move to federal jurisdiction.
"The challenge we faced was that no one had ever prosecuted a crime like that under this statute," Warma says, adding that two South Carolina judges denied search warrants because they didn't know about or understand the legislation.
It was the first known instance of federal prosecution for cyberharassment, Warma's office said.
After FBI agents found copies of the e-mail messages on his computer, Murphy pleaded guilty to two counts of harassment and was sentenced to 500 hours of community service and five years probation.
Ligon says that the difficulty of prosecuting cyberstalkers makes it unlikely that officials will use the new law frivolously.
"It is so hard to get a cyberstalker prosecuted," Ligon says. "It took me years of heartache and effort. The idea that someone is going to be federally prosecuted for writing annoying blogs is ridiculous."