A few Florida legislators are looking to do some serious damage to both free speech and the internet.
This week, the Florida state legislature is considering a bill that would make it illegal to run any website or service anonymously, if the site fits a vague category of “disseminat[ing]” “commercial” recordings or videos—even the site owner’s own work. Outlawing anonymous speech raises a serious First Amendment problem, and laws like this one have been abused by police and the entertainment industry.
The bill (Senate and House versions) seems to be catering directly to the entertainment industry and could give local law enforcement City of London Police-esque powers to act as de facto copyright cops. And its potential stripping of anonymity not only requires disclosure to law enforcement, but everyone else on the web.
A person who owns or operates a website or online service dealing in substantial part in the electronic dissemination of commercial recordings or audiovisual works, directly or indirectly, to consumers in this state shall clearly and conspicuously disclose his or her true and correct name, physical address, and telephone number or e-mail address on his or her website or online service in a location readily accessible to a consumer using or visiting the website or online service.
Do-it-yourself doxxing! What could possibly go wrong? Handing over your personal information to complete strangers always works out so well. The bill seems only concerned with giving rights holders easier access to potential infringers (still problematic), completely ignoring the unintended consequences of forcing certain site owners to hand out their personal information proactively, rather than only by law enforcement subpoena or court order.
On top of that, there’s the vagueness of the language. “Directly or indirectly” can mean a lot of things — like links to alleged infringement elsewhere on the web. And it would potentially force any number of site owners worldwide to give up their anonymity. The bill isn’t limited to sites/site owners residing in Florida. All it says is “electronic dissemination… to consumers in this state.” If a website can be accessed from Florida, it conceivably falls under the jurisdiction of this proposed law.
This would give the Grady “Showboat” Judds of Florida law enforcement all the reason they need to send ad hoc anti-piracy task forces all over the US to shut down infringing sites. Even if the damage was solely confined to Florida, it would still be a bad idea.
Similar “true name and address” laws in other states have been used to justify police raids on music studios. In 2007, a Georgia police SWAT team (with RIAA employees in tow) raided the studio of DJ Drama and DJ Cannon, makers of influential “mixtapes” that record labels used to promote their artists. The police arrested the DJs and confiscated their CDs and equipment. Their justification wasn’t copyright law (which is a federal law) but a more limited version of the same law Florida is considering, one that applies only to physical goods. If Florida expands on Georgia’s law by including websites, we could see similar police raids against music blogs or other avenues of online speech. And the works on the site might even be in the public domain, as long as some “owner, assignee, authorized agent, or licensee”—perhaps a broadcaster—complains.
If there is a bright side to this proposed law, it’s that it doesn’t gut Section 230 protections and contains the smallest of nods towards Fair Use. But that’s it. Otherwise, it’s a mess — a bill designed to expedite the pursuit of infringers at the expense of free speech and online anonymity.