Irish Legislator Proposes Law That Would Make Annoying People Online A Criminal Act
from the because-snail-mail,-telephones-and-the-internet-are-all-the-same,-right? dept
Is Ireland looking to pass a law that would “outlaw ebooks and jail people for annoying others?” Well, no, not really, but that’s the sort of unintended consequences that follow when laws are updated for the 21st century using little more than a word swap. (h/t Brian Sheehan)
Ireland has had long-standing laws against harassment via snail mail, telephones and (as of 2007) SMS messages. A 2014 report by the government’s somewhat troublingly-named “Internet Content Governance Advisory Group” recommended updating this section of the law to cover email, social media and other internet-related transmissions. UPDATE APPLIED:
1. The Post Office (Amendment) Act 1951 is amended in section 13, as substituted by section 4 of and Schedule 1 to the Communications Regulation (Amendment) Act 2007, by the substitution of the following section:
“Offences in connection with public electronic communications networks
13. (1) A person who—
(a) sends or causes to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or is indecent, obscene or menacing, or
(b) for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another—
(i) sends or causes to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message that the sender knows to be false, or
(ii) persistently and without reasonable cause makes use of a public electronic communications network, is guilty of an offence.
Violators are looking at sentences ranging from 1-5 years and fines of up to €75,000 — all for doing something as minor as “causing annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety.” In addition, the proposed amendment would provide for the seizure of devices used to send the annoying messages, including computers, cell phones — even the internet connection itself.
Provisions for device seizures first showed up in the 2007 update, as cell phones finally gave law enforcers something they could confiscate with minimal public outrage, at least at that point. Even in 2015, it’s still pretty difficult to justify cutting off someone’s phone service and almost impossible to find anyone who agrees that banning someone from using the postal service isn’t a pretty clear violation of basic rights. But when it comes to computers and internet connections, many legislators still feel these essential tools of communication are just “luxuries” — a status they haven’t held for several years.
But back to the headline. The broad language — if read literally — could make emailing an ebook to someone a criminal offense. Works of fiction are, by definition, false. But this isn’t a new “feature” of this proposed amendment. The sending of knowingly false messages dates back to the day when people still routed most of their communications through the post office. So, everyone who’s ever sent anyone a fictional book through the mail — including Amazon — is a potential violator of this law.
It’s the vestigial language from previous iterations of the law — words meant to target scam artists and aggressive telemarketers — that is problematic. Simply appending the words “electronic communications” to an old law doesn’t address the perceived problem (cyberbullying is cited in the governance group’s report). It just creates new problems.
Written in this manner, the proposed law allows the pursuit of criminal charges for annoyance and inconvenience — and the internet has plenty of both. The saving grace is that this pursuit is left to law enforcement, rather than routed through a civil process. It’s a criminal offense, which is an adversarial process every step of the way — in stark contrast to other, far more terrible “cyberbullying” laws that shift the burden of proof to the accused — if they’re even allowed to defend themselves.
Yes, the law is badly written, but it’s a not a legislative land grab. It’s just a lazy update to an existing law — one that may have worked out fairly well given the narrow confines under which it operated. But this proposal — a lazy “on the internet” patch job — has the potential to criminalize lots of previously protected speech.