Liars, Rejoice! You're No Longer Breaking a Rhode Island Law

Until this month, the state barred you from "transmitting false data." But that gets tricky now that "data" can mean "protected speech."


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Good news, almost everyone who has ever used the Internet! You are no longer breaking the law in Rhode Island.

Or rather -- if you ever, even once, lied on the internet -- you are no longer breaking the law in Rhode Island. The state's General Assembly repealed a part of state code this month that prohibited the "transmission of false data," which, as words are data on the web, meant that even suggesting you were "Away" on GChat when you actually just didn't want to be distracted counted as a crime.

It's a silly law that was rarely used in court, and it's easy to haughtily laugh about Rhode Island, that tiny state of a long name and humorous litigiousness. (Although it isn't easy to laugh the words, "humorous litigiousness.") But the text of the two-decades-old law reveals how our understanding of information and electronic speech has changed.

The law's text assumes data is distinct from life.

The rule hailed from 1989, the same year Tim Berners-Lee united the Internet and hypertext to propose the World Wide Web. So the law understands "data" in a distinctly pre-Web way. Its full text -- from Title 11, Chapter 52 "Computer Crime," Section 7 -- outlaws digital fraud, then goes a step further:

Whoever intentionally or knowingly: (1) makes a transmission of false data; or (2) makes, presents or uses or causes to be made, presented or used any data for any other purpose with knowledge of its falsity, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor...

To the law, written before the age of Facebook and Gmail, "data" only seemed to sit in a spreadsheet or sprawl throughout a scientific paper. Data was numbers. Now, a major company suggests that its archive of your data can tell your life story, and society understands that:

Data can be speech.

"This law made virtually the entire population of Rhode Island a criminal," Steven Brown, the executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU, told the Associated Press. According to the same report, the state representative who proposed the law's elimination, Chris Blazejewski, "said it was likely unconstitutional."

How was it not unconstitutional? It's hard to imagine, today, a serious consideration of the web failing to understand that someone's speech acts might count as data, or that outlawing the transmission of false data obstructs freedom of speech pretty quickly, too. We still strive to glimpse the implications of the medium of the web, of many tabs open to hypertext, but we understand, I think, that speech on the web remains plain-old speech, the kind protected by our Enlightenment-vintage First Amendment.

And for that reason, Rhode Island's repeal of an obscure, absurd law is worth noting, because it underlies an American commitment to what remains a quietly radical idea: that the work of thought and language in the world are so crucial, so worthy of devotion, that "Congress shall make no law" against them. Britain still labors under nightmarish libel laws which haven't been reformed since 1843. But this month, Rhode Island -- quietly, humbly, even with a little embarrassment -- made its code fit an American value and a hopeful American reality.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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