April Fool’s! That post I published yesterday about a bill to strip section 230 protections was a hoax, and (don’t get mad!) I was part of it. Eric Turkewitz,
perennial annual jokester and the brains behind the operation, explains:
Welcome to April 2nd, and that means deconstructing yesterday’s web hoax that dealt with a phony bill by Senator Joe Lieberman that would effectively ban anonymous commentary on the Internet. The bill does this by stripping away the immunity that content providers currently enjoy from Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That would expose bloggers, forum owners and a panoply of others to potential liability. It played out on a dozen blogs that were all in on the joke.
How do I know it was just a joke? Do you really have to ask? If you’re just checking in to this blog for the first time you will find out by looking at this posting of mine from yesterday that this is the fifth year in a row I’ve done one of these. But since I’m now known (in the legal blogosphere) for running an annual gag, I created a new blog in February just for this purpose, to mask my identity: McIntyre v. Ohio. Prior to yesterday, the readership of that blog had been six Bulgarian spam bots and that guy Ken from Popehat. Thanks, Ken.
The new blog is dedicated to anonymous free speech, and named for the leading Supreme Court case on the subject. The idea for it popped into my brain late last year when Senator Lieberman asked Twitter to kill the Taliban feed. Obviously, the government can’t just shoot down someone’s speech rights, no matter how vile, because of that whole First Amendment thingie. This country was built on the marketplace of ideas prevailing, so the answer to political speech with which we disagree has always been “more speech.”
So the April Fool’s idea was that Lieberman would circumvent the First Amendment issue by simply stripping away the immunity that web hosts enjoy, thereby scaring the bejesus out of everyone in the private sector that is in any way involved with a web forum, and forcing people to kill controversial speech out of fear of litigation. It was called the Accountability for Free Discussion Act, or AFD, which is also the acronym for yesterday’s fun fest.
Eric has more at the link, but I wanted to highlight this one part:
But before any of you get angry at me or my co-conspirators listed below, remember this: Each of the authors participated because we feel strongly about protecting the First Amendment. (I’ve twice defended defamation claims, one in the past and one currently.) So while you may have been fooled for a few hours, or even angered, you should know that those who did the fooling are your teammates in vigilance against those that wish to encroach on our rights to speak freely. Most of the jokesters are lawyers. We get it.
I agree entirely. I would be four-square in opposition to any proposal as foolish as the one we attributed to Joe Lieberman. Holding bloggers responsible for the comments of their commenters would create a troll’s paradise in which commenters could create lawsuits for opposition blogs by leaving defamatory or otherwise actionable comments on those blogs. The response of blog owners would be to kill open comments on the Internet — a clear loss for the free and open exchange of ideas.
Yesterday I argued something a little different: that squelching anonymous speech would have a silver lining, because anonymous Internet actors spread false rumors that can hurt people and create phony controversies. I had a lot of fun writing those comments, because I knew that the entire premise of the post was based on an anonymous Internet actors (Turkewitz’s anonyblog) spreading a false rumor and thus creating a phony controversy. If you go back and re-read yesterday’s post and comment section, you will hopefully enjoy a little chuckle as I go around trying to get people to pay attention to the dangers of anonymous people spreading falsehoods on the Internet.
For those who don’t want to read a lengthy comment section, here is a brief recap. I started yesterday’s post noting that the source of the information was an anonymous blog:
According to the blog McIntyre v Ohio, an anonymous blog devoted to promoting anonymous speech, Senator Joe Lieberman has proposed stripping blog hosts of the immunity they currently enjoy from liability for things their blog commenters say.
Hint, hint! This is from further down in yesterday’s post:
You see, anonymous commenters (and bloggers) are also responsible for a lot of disinformation. And there is far too great a tendency for people to believe factual assertions by anonymous bloggers or commenters. Just because an anonymous blogger or commenter says something does not make it true. I specifically note this in part because I myself have been the victim of anonymous people making up “facts” about me. And it’s surprising how often people lap that kind of thing up.
So a revision to section 230 would be mostly bad. But given how often anonymous speech is not factual, you’re not going to find me crusading on this particular issue.
You would find me crusading on the issue . . . if the issue were real. But since it was a phony issue started by an anonymous blogger, I didn’t feel like crusading. That’s what I was trying to say.
In the comments, I elaborated on the dangers of falling for “facts” offered up by anonymous Internet entities, like here:
d in c: but them what do we do about the problem of misinformation by dishonest anonymous actors? It’s easy to say just refute it with more speech … but the problem with unsubstantiated rumors is that sometimes you don’t even know what disinformation is being spread. Trust me: when it happens to you it may give you a different perspective.
Will someone address my concern about misleading anonymous speech? Is this not a valid issue?
You sometimes find all kinds of people spreading disinformation that, if traced back to its source, turns out to be an anonymous person who is simply lying.
If you don’t think anonymous people on the Intenet manufacture “facts” to influence political discussion, you’re not paying attention.
The really scary part is how often it works without people even knowing it. Again: I have seen this firsthand.
58 comments in, I just wish one person would say: you know what? An anonymous Internet presence could totally make something up out of whole cloth, mislead people, and make fools of a large group of the electorate. And while I disagree with government intervention, I agree this is a genuine issue.
Can I get an amen on that, at least?
Writing these comments was fun, but what was especially fun was watching some of the readers “get it” — and then promptly burying their comments in moderation. Kudos go out to Dianna, Rodney Graves, JRM, Roland, Sue, and Random, all of whom guessed the joke. Random’s comment, collecting my quotes from the post about the dangers of anonymity, was an epic tipoff, and since the day was nearly over, and the collection of quotes was so well done, I decided not to moderate it. You can read it here.
Rodney Graves’s comment was cute:
Somehow, I suspect we’ll all feel a lot better about this in the morning…
As was JRM’s:
I’m slightly surprised . . . that *no one* appears to have looked at their calendar when analyzing this proposal.
Actually, several people had — I was just exercising my prerogative to disappear their comments. All the comments that I moderated out of existence have now been approved. Each contains my original note to them, followed by a note dated today saying I am releasing the comment from moderation.
There is a serious component to the argument I was making yesterday. It is actually a little frightening how easily people believe assertions by anonymous commenters on the Internet. I have been the victim of anonymous smear artists who have conducted Internet-based whisper campaigns about me, and I have seen it work on people who should know better. If yesterday’s exercise helps remind people that unsourced factual assertions by anonymous Internet entities are completely worthless, then I will have succeeded.
But the remedy is not government intervention. The remedy is more speech. In my case, the people conducting the whisper campaigns are all going to be exposed. Their reputations will suffer badly, and the weapon that will accomplish that suffering will be the best weapon of all: the truth.
So Joe Lieberman, you can take your phony proposal and go to hell!