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The Censorship Bill

Alex Christie

13 May 2009

A new cyber-bullying bill, aimed to punish those who intend to cause harm through electronic mediums, could turn us all into criminals.

The bill, HR 1966 introduced by US Representative Linda Sanchez, is being proposed as a result of the much covered “MySpace Suicide” in an attempt to hold people accountable for actions carried out online. People found guilty of this act could face fines, jail time or both. While I do feel there needs to be some form of governance and accountability for what is said and done in open web forums, the vague wording of the bill is very open to interpretation.

The main problem arises with their definitions of what constitutes as harmful behaviour and what is an electronic medium. Imagine that late night text to the ex, or your opinion (on your blog) on a political party’s statements, having repercussions of jail time. This is the potential outcomes of a bill that is not thought out properly.

UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh, on his blog, delves into a whole host of potential ramifications if the bill is passed. “Several people use blogs or Web-based newspaper articles to organize a boycott of a company, hoping to get it to change some policy they disapprove of. They are transmitting communications with the intent to coerce, using electronic means “to support severe, repeated, and hostile behaviour.” Result: Those people are a felon.”

It is not surprising that the bill is being dubbed the Censorship Bill.

Sanchez wrote on the Huffington post. “Put simply, this legislation would be used as a tool for a judge and jury to determine whether there is significant evidence to prove that a person ‘cyberbullied’ another. That is: did they have the required intent, did they use electronic means of communication, and was the communication severe, hostile, and repeated. So—bloggers, emailers, texters, spiteful exes, and those who have blogged against this bill have no fear—your words are still protected under the same American values.”
Although Sanchez seems sure that the bill could not be abused, there is no way of guaranteeing how judges are going to interpret such laws.

The inevitable result of this would be that social networks and websites, in an attempt to protect themselves, would have to restrict the amount of interaction the user has with their platform or strictly monitor all posts and submissions to ensure that they pass their new rigorous standards.

No more laughing at funny facebook pics from the weekend before…

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