They Got the Same Shit Over There That We Got Here – Stupid Internet Law

May 23, 2012

Readers of this blog are already quite familiar with so-called “Real ID” or “Real Name” rules in China. These refer to regulations mandating that certain Net activities, such as posting to and writing comments on a microblog, are only done by folks who have duly signed up with the platform operator using legal ID (i.e. a China ID card).

Why do we have these laws? In China, it can mostly be explained with the magic word “stability.” The reasoning is that without some curbs on online content, social stability might suffer. Most foreigners I talk to understand this from a political speech perspective but fail to see the other aspects of these regulations.

Consider the recent campaigns against online rumor-mongering. Again, this push can partly be explained with a discussion about political speech. But that’s not the whole story. There are many other kinds of online rumors that the legislators consider dangerous, such as unsubstantiated information about food quality and environmental dangers. The idea here is that if false information about these issues is spread online, this could damage the economy and harm social stability.

What do these rules against anonymous posts/comments look like? Here’s some language from a draft regulation:

A web site administrator upon request shall remove any comments posted on his or her web site by an anonymous poster unless such anonymous poster agrees to attach his or her name to the post and confirms that his or her IP address, legal name, and home address are accurate.

All web site administrators shall have a contact number or e-mail address posted for such removal requests, clearly visible in any sections where comments are posted.

Fairly standard stuff, although it’s drafted horribly; no way for site operators to verify contact information, so everyone would just end up lying. That aside, which China government agency came up with this? MIIT? MOFCOM? MOC?

Don’t know? Well, no surprise, that was a trick question. The draft legislation, called the “Internet Protection Act,” is actually the brain child of Republican lawmakers in the New York State legislature. No, really, and trying to figure out why they have proposed such a measure tells us something about why governments favor these types of rules.

Why would New York Republicans favor something that is similar to China laws designed, in part, to control online content? Here’s one possibility:

A new bill called the Internet Protection Act would give people the ability to request that disparaging, anonymous posts be removed from websites owned by New York-based companies in an effort to stop cyberbullying.

“While the Internet is a wonderful resource for social networking, sadly it can also be used to anonymously bring harm to others,” said Assemblyman Dean Murray, R-East Patchogue.

[ . . . ]

The measure would require these websites to have either a toll-free phone number or e-mail address for victims of cyberbullying to contact.

[ . . . ]

Assemblyman Peter Lopez, R-Scoharie, co-sponsor of the bill, said the internet is akin to the “wild west: almost anything goes.” He asked, “How do we take a resource that is so beneficial and make sure it is used properly? Make sure we are civilized as we conduct ourselves in the use of that resource?”

Right. So it’s all about cyberbullying, making sure that online conduct is “civilized.” Sounds a lot like the preambles to some of the China legislation, which calls for proper regulation of the Internet for the benefit of society, blah blah blah.

By the way, cyberbullying is, according to The God of Knowledge Wikipedia, “the use of the Internet and related technologies to harm other people, in a deliberate, repeated, and hostile manner. As it has become more common in society, particularly among young people, legislation and awareness campaigns have arisen to combat it.”

You might have heard one of those stories about a distraught kid who, after being humiliated on Facebook, drowned himself/herself in a toilet or drank a can of paint thinner. Cyberbullying. I guess those Republicans are just looking out for kids in New York, right?

Then again:

In addition to cracking down on cyber-bullying, the bill also prevents people from posting anonymous criticism of local businesses. Too often, rival businesses will post negative and false posts to hurt their competition. With more and more people turning to online reviews, it is important to ensure that the posted information, good or bad, is from actual customers and not rival competitors.

Hmm. Criticism of businesses. Sounds a lot like the kind of rumor-mongering that Chinese rules are designed to stop. But hey, at least there’s no political component to all this.

Right? Well, you probably know what’s coming next:

Finally, the legislation will help cut down on the types of mean-spirited and baseless political attacks that add nothing to the real debate and merely seek to falsely tarnish the opponent’s reputation by using the anonymity of the Web. By removing these posts, this bill will help to ensure that there is more accurate information available to voters on their prospective candidates, giving them a better assessment of the candidates they have to choose from.

And let’s not forget our old friend Assemblyman Murray:

Murray admitted to being a victim of derogatory website posts two years ago during his re-election campaign. An anonymous source posted on multiple websites that Murray committed acts of domestic violence against his ex-wife. The anonymous posts also said Murray’s son was hiding from his father because he was being abused.

“These comments were absolutely horrible and unfortunately if you Google them now you’ll still be able to pull up a couple of the comments,” said Murray.

Interesting. So the legislation would, in addition to dealing with cyberbullying, also help protect businesses and politicians. Sounds like a great way to ensure social and political stability and foster a more harmonious society, doesn’t it?

OK, before you get too excited, this New York legislation is a stunt that will never pass. Moreover, it looks like it would violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, so there’s that little hurdle to overcome. If you use New York-based sites, I wouldn’t worry too much.

Last point. I am not in any way making an equivalence argument, saying that somehow the U.S., or U.S. law, is comparable to China Net rules. At the same time, I’m not commenting on the normative issues here at all (although the post title should give you a clue about my opinion).

I did, however, want to point out that this type of legislation is not only making headway in other parts of the world, but also that it isn’t just about political speech. As social media creeps into many facets of our lives, governments are struggling with proper regulation. Courts in China, for example, have been inundated with online copyright infringement and defamation claims in recent years. These days, all one has to do is refer to a public figure as a racist xenophobe in a blog post, and the lawsuit threats begin immediately. Hey, if the shoe fits . . . but I digress.

There are obvious benefits to open online debate, but there are also downsides, including tortious acts. China is not the only government trying to figure out how to strike the right balance.