Upon the Arizona governor's desk sits a revised house bill (pdf) which is ready to be signed into law. The changes in H.B 2549s aim to curb and even criminalize cyberbullying, however, it may also make nearly every chat room and comment section found on the Internet a place of illicit behavior.
The amendments made to H.B. 2549 would make just about any annoying, harassing or offensive online comment, reply or message illegal in the state of Arizona. In other words, the time-honored vocation of Internet trolling would become a criminal offense -- a class 1 misdemeanor -- punishable by up to a $250,000 fine and 6 months in jail.
According to The Verge, Media Coalition and other sources, what Arizona officials have done is take a telecommunications bill which was already law, cross out all references to "telephone" and replace them with "electronic or digital communications". On its face, this could be seen as a sensible thing to do considering the Internet is, at its core, a communications device. However, because people voluntarily seek out places on the Internet -- the web doesn't ring your phone until you're forced to turn it off, like a harassing phone call might -- some would argue it's quite different.
A. It is unlawful for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend, to use a
telephone[read: 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.
Realizing the potential dangers of such legislation, the Media Coalition has sent a formal request (pdf) to Arizona's governor, Jan Brewer, in hopes she will veto the bill. In the letter, the organization seems to capture the essence of the issue within a couple of paragraphs.
H.B. 2549 would make it a crime to use any electronic or digital device to communicate using obscene, lewd or profane language or to suggest a lewd or lascivious act if done with intent to "annoy," "offend," "harass" or "terrify." The legislation offers no definitions for "annoy," "offend," "harass" or "terrify." "Electronic or digital device" is defined only as any wired or wireless communication device and multimedia storage device. "Lewd" and "profane" are not defined in the statute or by reference. "Lewd" is generally understood to mean lusty or sexual in nature and "profane" is generally defined as disrespectful or irreverent about religion or religious practices.
Government may criminalize speech that rises to the level of harassment and many states have laws that do so, but this legislation takes a law meant to address irritating phone calls and applies it to communication on web sites, blogs, listserves and other Internet communication. H.B. 2549 is not limited to a one to one conversation between two specific people. The communication does not need to be repetitive or even unwanted. There is no requirement that the recipient or subject of the speech actually feel offended, annoyed or scared. Nor does the legislation make clear that the communication must be intended to offend or annoy the reader, the subject or even any specific person.