Why are we upset?

The new Telecommunications Act of 1996 is a hodgepodge of remedies for perceived shortcomings of previous law, and defines many different crimes related to obscenity, etc., but the language that is causing all of the furor on the internet is in section 502. Upon reading it carefully, you will note that, under this law, a person who uses email to send an "indecent" comment to someone else, with the intent to annoy them, is guilty of a federal crime punishable by up to two years in prison plus a fine. Amazingly, the section goes on to explain that if you commit the (presumably greater) crime of providing pornographic material to a minor, you can be punished by (are you ready for this?) the same two years in prison plus a fine. This means that if I get mad at you and send you private email with the suggestion that you put your head back up your butt where you found it, I have certainly made an indecent (possibly even obscene!) suggestion, and if I send it to you I probably intend it to annoy you, so I would then be guilty of the same crime as if I had been sending your ten-year-old daughter pictures of young boys having sex with irish wolfhounds.

Does this make sense to you? It doesn't to us. There is no definition of what is "indecent," and the federal government has, in the past, shown a definite willingness to use such broad laws very selectively to punish individuals they don't like. It doesn't matter if you manage to get the law declared unconstitutional or even manage to be found not guilty. They still punish you by forcing you to spend more money than you have on lawyers, and you most likely spend quite a bit of time in jail waiting for your trial and appeals.

Don't let the "interstate or foreign commerce" condition fool you. The federal government has historically always claimed that if you use a medium capable of being used in interstate or foreign commerce, then you are effectively engaged in it, regardless of what you are actually doing.

The text of the first part of section 502 follows:

                      UNDER THE COMMUNICATIONS ACT OF 1934.
       Section 223 (47 U.S.C. 223) is amended--
         (1) by striking subsection (a) and inserting in lieu thereof:
      `(a) Whoever--
          `(1) in interstate or foreign communications--
              `(A) by means of a telecommunications device knowingly--
                  `(i) makes, creates, or solicits, and
                  `(ii) initiates the transmission of,
            any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other
            communication which is obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, 
            or indecent, with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or
            harass another person;
            [...deleted for space...] or;  
          `(2) knowingly permits any telecommunications facility under
        his control to be used for any activity prohibited by paragraph
        (1) with the intent that it be used for such activity,
    shall be fined under title 18, United States Code, or imprisoned 
    not more than two years, or both.'; and
It also defines a few more similar offenses, and exceptions that are apparently intended to protect your telephone company, America Online, and the like from being responsible for what you say or send, but they are written in such a convoluted way that I still haven't figured out what they actually say. If you want to see all of section 502, you can get it here, and you can get the entire new telecommunications act from the House of Representatives at ftp://ftp.loc.gov/pub/thomas/c104/s652.enr.txt. It's about 400kb long, so be prepared to wait!
Updated 26 Feb 1996 by Bob Johnson, afn01750@afn.org

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