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New Year, New Slate of “AWFUL” Internet Laws

Snow capitol building It was an awfully bad snowfall that paralyzed Washington, DC last week. While we may curse Old Man Winter, ‘tis the season for snow.  Unfortunately, it’s also the season for bad legislation – and we have to to worry about digging out the Internet from a pile of bad proposed state and federal laws.


Today NetChoice released its first iAWFUL list of 2010, taking stock of the most serious legislative threats facing the global Internet. The Internet Advocates’ Watchlist for Ugly Laws (iAWFUL) is our top ten – or more accurately, “bottom ten” – list of the worst proposed Internet laws in America.


For the first time since we started keeping the iAWFUL list in 2009, a federal proposal has taken the infamous number one spot. The Federal Trade Commission is telling Congress to scrap long-established checks on its already extensive power. The FTC wants the power to impose burdensome regulations on communications between online retailers and consumers without answering to Congress.


State legislatures have typically had a monopoly on proposing the most outrageous and extreme burdens on Internet commerce and communication, but this effort in Congress has the potential to do serious damage to the Internet and innovation throughout the nation.


When Congress passed the Magnuson-Moss Act in 1975, it recognized that a more transparent rulemaking process must temper the FTC’s exceptionally broad consumer protection powers over all forms of trade and commerce. A repeal of Magnuson-Moss rules would let the FTC create new restrictions on longstanding retailer relationships that deliver free and targeted benefits to consumers.


But while a federal measure may have taken over the top spot on our list, statehouses from Hawaii to Virginia own the next nine spots on this year’s iAWFUL.


Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Virginia, and Vermont also made the iAWFUL list for their attempts to force out-of-state advertisers to collect and file sales tax returns for sales to their residents.


Online companies and content providers are still experimenting with new models for advertising and distribution. State laws that use online advertising as a proxy for an in-state sales representative will stunt the growth of new business models and distort the evolution of Internet marketing.


But we don’t keep the iAWFUL list just to remind ourselves of all the bad laws out there. We keep it to rally the efforts of advocates around the country working to protect the Internet. In that respect, the real story of the iAWFUL list is not what’s on it, but what fell off.


The top legislation on the August 2009 iAWFUL release was a Maine bill attempting to restrict marketing to teens online. But in response to the publicity created by iAWFUL – and thanks to a lot of hard work by Internet advocates — Maine’s House and Senate Judiciary committees unanimously recommended repeal of the law in the next legislative session.


Another high-profile item on the last iAWFUL –trio of federal bills regarding organized retail crime, made a remarkable improvement and fell from the Top 10. Again, thanks to the efforts of NetChoice and other Internet advocates, lawmakers began to get the message that law enforcement needed resources – not new laws – to fight organized retail crime.


The name of iAWFUL says it all. This is a list of ugly, ugly laws. But anytime we get tired of sorting, ranking and listing them, we remind ourselves that iAWFUL is a key tool to blunting their dangerous effects.


Call it our snow shovel to dig the Internet out from a blizzard of bad legislation.


[photo above: AP Photo/Evan Vucci]