House Bill Would Put Extra Burden on Bloggers

Published May 12, 2010

A Michigan congressman is pushing a bill that would empower the Federal Trade Commission to impose fines on Web site operators if they fail to take down personal information posted on their sites.

Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI) has introduced the “Cyber Privacy Act” (HR 5108) in response to incidents of harassment and cybercrime resulting from the posting of phone numbers, email addresses, and even Social Security numbers online without the individuals’ consent.

Jim Harper, director of Information Policy Studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC, says, “McCotter’s plan to regulate Internet communications in this way is no “Cyber Privacy” act.”

‘Personal Copyright Protection’
McCotter’s bill defines “personal information” as “any information about an individual that includes, at minimum, the individual’s name together with either a telephone number of such individual or an address of such individual.”

In essence, however, claims Faffi Moazzam, an attorney with Moazzam & Associates in McLean, Virginia, this bill would ensconce into law a notion of “personal copyright protection.” And while that might sound like a good idea on the surface, he says, the concept is troubling upon further examination.

“The language of this bill is amazingly overreaching,” Moazzam said. “Although its aim is likely intended to provide some sense of privacy to those who do not wish their information to become publicly accessible, it completely misses the point that such information may be obtained from public records.”

Mozzam sees the bill as impeding questioning of government, media, and big business.

“Will the right to challenge, say, members of Congress, members of the media, or powerful corporate executives be nearly impossible if watchdog groups cannot provide such contact information for a letter writing or calling campaign? It appears so under this bill,” he said.

Webmasters Beware
Harper says this bill would “regulate every Internet site that has a comment section,” putting an enormous monitoring burden on everyone who runs a blog. It would take just a single comment, out of many hundred in a day, to put a Webmaster afoul of the law.

“Let’s say you run a site that receives hundreds or thousands of comments per day, many of them from anonymous visitors,” Harper said. “Let’s say the site deals with controversial issues, and some visitors are angry at each other—they’re even angry at the site for hosting the discussion.”

Attack of the Trolls
“Those visitors start working to undermine the conversation,” Harper added. “They personally attack others, adopt false names, tell lies, and use vulgarities. This kind of person is well-known on the Web. They’re called ‘trolls.’

“What would trolls do if federal law required webmasters to take down personal information by request?” Harper asked. “Simple: They would post the personal information of others. They would [then] pose as [those] others and falsely ask to have information taken down.

“It’s a great way to attack a site: require it to consider hundreds or thousands of personal information take-down requests, each one backed by the threat of federal penalties,” he added.

Beyond FTC Authority
Moazzam says McCotter’s bill would “extend beyond the powers” given to the FTC. Essentially, the agency would have the power to punish those who share information one could find in a phone book.

“It would be wholly unclear what portion of that agency’s mission would involve the protection of an individual’s basic factual information which is publicly accessible,” Moazzam said.

“Any proposed new role for the FTC in this regard would likely be challenged [in court as violating] the Administrative Procedure Act and other established statutes which ensure that individual government agencies do not overextend their statutory powers,” he added.

Increasing Internet Surveillance
Harper says McCotter’s bill is nothing less than “a proposal to increase Internet surveillance.

“Maybe he intends to improve Internet courtesy and decency, but decency is not a federal government project,” Harper said. “It’s bottom-up, not top-down.

“McCotter’s thinks [his bill] is going to protect privacy, but he’s sorely mistaken,” he added. “Its passage would undermine privacy and limit free speech.”

Jim Lakely ([email protected]) is co-director of the Center on the Digital Economy at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of InfoTech & Telecom News.