Apr 4, 2012

Arizona Law Could Mean Internet Censorship

Chuck MisslerBy Dr. Chuck Missler
Koinonia House

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China's Communist Party takes Internet censorship seriously. During the past two months, more than 1000 people have been arrested for posting the wrong sorts of information online. Whether intentionally or not, the state of Arizona is in the process of opening its own Pandora's box of Internet censorship. Arizona's legislative houses have passed a bill that would make it a misdemeanor to be obscene or profane or even annoying on cell phones or the Internet. While the goal of this law is to stop cyber-bullying and not to keep a communist regime in power, its vague wording would make a wide range of Internet speech illegal.

Arizona House Bill 2549 amends a previous law meant to protect people from telephone harassment, changing the word "telephone" in the law to the term "ANY ELECTRONIC OR DIGITAL DEVICE" and "telephone calls" to "ELECTRONIC OR DIGITAL COMMUNICATIONS." The original law made way for a person being intimated by threatening phone calls to stop harassment coming in over the phone lines. The person who purposely called to annoy or frighten another person could be charged with a class 1 misdemeanor, potentially earning the troublemaker six months in jail in the state of Arizona.

With the changes, the first part of the law now reads:

It is unlawful for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend, to use ANY ELECTRONIC OR DIGITAL DEVICE and use any obscene, lewd or profane language or suggest any lewd or lascivious act, or threaten to inflict physical harm to the person or property of any person. It is also unlawful to otherwise disturb by repeated anonymous ELECTRONIC OR DIGITAL COMMUNICATIONS the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person at the place where the COMMUNICATIONS were received.

It is not a simple thing to change "telephone" to "electronic or digital device" and expect a neat and tidy fix to the problem of digital harassment. A telephone call involves one person specifically targeting another person or household. It's reasonable to have a law against using a telephone to threaten and terrify another person or harass them with obscene phone calls. It's reasonable to have a way to legally stop somebody from calling incessantly at dinnertime. In this digital age, however, stopping long-distance harassment is not so simple.

First, not all digital communications are one-to-one. There are obviously a host of electronic and digital devices today communicating to and from people, and presumably this law could apply to cell phone calls and text messages, emails, Facebook posts, YouTube comments and online message board threads. The definition is so broad that even television commercials that "annoy" or "offend" people could technically be attacked using this poorly amended law. One person could lodge a complaint about an offhand Internet comment he or she finds offensive, and the person who wrote the comment could be charged with a misdemeanor. In the name of halting cyber bullying, HB 2549 makes a broad directive that could be used to censor knee-jerk responses on message board threads or legally harass people who make off color jokes on Facebook posts. As written, it could even be used against editorials and cartoons.

Most web sites already have policies in place to remove obscene or violent or terrorizing comments from their web pages. What's more, Arizona already has laws in place that allow a person to petition the court to stop harassment, including harassment "by electronic contact or communication." If Arizona lawmakers want to specifically target intimidating or obscene attacks on individuals made through the ever-widening range of digital media, they need to draw up a law specifically tailored to the issue rather than quickly amending an older law that dealt with a simpler problem. As it is, House Bill 2549 opens up the Internet to tremendous government control and censorship, and if Governor Jan Brewer signs it, it will be unlikely to stand constitutionally.

Related Links
Arizona Legislature Passes Internet Censorship Bill • The New American
Internet censorship? Arizona law could outlaw trolling on the web • Digital Journal
Arizona law would censor the Internet • MSNBC
Arizona Internet Censorship Bill So Ridiculous, Even The MPAA And RIAA Are Against It • Tech Dirt
Arizona House Bill 2549: Killing free speech online • Daily Caller