There’s a great article in Online Media Daily that sums up all the reasons why New Jersey should not pass proposed legislation that requires social networking websites to be liable for abusive and harassing communications occurring on their sites.
A3757 was introduced this session and is part of a package of Internet safety legislation put forth by Attorney General Anne Milgram. The bill essentially strong-arms social networking sites into placing a conspicuous “report abuse” icon on web pages and to respond to and investigate alleged reports of harassment and bullying, or else be liable for violating the state’s consumer fraud act.
There are lots of problems to this bill. First, how to define what is and isn’t a social networking website? Social networking is not limited to just Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn. There are thousands of other sites that have social networking features but aren’t thought of as a pure social network site. Define “social networking” too narrowly, and you may not include these other sites where harassment and bullying can occur. However, define “social networking” broadly and you create burdens and potential liability on many sites (particularly smaller) where there’s no real need for report abuse icons and formal procedures.
The article cites Prof. Eric Goldman at Santa Clara Law School saying that Sect. 230 of the Communications Decency Act would preempt civil lawsuits against websites. But would it preempt state enforcement of the fraud act? I’m not sure.
The article also cites Sam Bayard, assistant director of the Citizen Media Law Project, who says that the law could give Web sites an incentive to err on the side of blocking users because doing so will avoid lawsuits (which would chill free speech).
Finally, the article quotes me at the end:
Cox also questioned the wisdom of asking people to report threats to social networking sites rather than to the police. “If a communication is truly harassing or makes someone fear for their life, they should go to law enforcement. 911 should be the response — not www.”
We still have at least a month or two to defeat or amend this bill. I’ll keep you posted.
– Braden Cox