Assemblyman Peter Biondi, R-Somerset, has introduced a bill that would require Internet forum operators to register their users' real names and addresses or face liability for defamatory posts. He should drag his mouse and hit the "delete" key on this one.
While his expressed goal of returning "a little civility to the Internet" is understandable, it's far outweighed by the bill's potential damage to free speech.
Biondi's bill, now before the Assembly's Telecommunications and Utilities Committee, would require that any public Internet forum operator disclose the name and address of anyone who posted a message deemed false or defamatory to the person allegedly defamed.
Biondi, who admits being the subject of some unflattering Internet posts in the past, said the anonymity "allows them to take liberties that they wouldn't do if their name was there." But that anonymity also lets people post information and express opinions without fear of retaliation. That's also the purpose behind anonymous tip lines to report wrongdoing. They can be misused, but eliminating them is more harmful than having to follow up on false reports.
Postings on public forums are sometimes mean-spirited and unfair. But requiring all posters to provide their names and addresses would discourage many would-be contributors from sharing their legitimate concerns about the actions of public officials and other opinion leaders. The free flow of ideas should not be restricted by thin-skinned politicians whose egos have been bruised by criticism, deserved or not.
The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the use of anonymity as a shield from retaliation, and the Communication Decency Act of 1996 provides that interactive computer service providers cannot be held liable for content posted by third parties. The First Amendment and legal predecents, combined with the likely futility of applying a New Jersey statute to the World Wide Web, should compel Biondi to send this bill to his computer desktop's recycle bin. If he doesn't, he deserves to be flamed ó anonymously or otherwise ó in Internet forums everywhere.