What Would the Internet Look Like If Trolling Were Illegal?

Imagine an Internet on which haters didn't hate. 

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Imagine an Internet on which haters didn't hate. Where there were no mean commenters, no stories that hurt people's pretty little feelings. Everyone would virtually hug at the end of a day, congratulate themselves for a job well done, even if that job was essentially just PR, and we'd probably all drink a lot less. The Daily Mail would cease to exist. Bloggers would become extinct. It would be so boring that those of us who hadn't died of boredom would die of sitting.

This is the sort of life we might hope for under Arizona's House Bill 2549, recently passed by the state legislature in an attempt to make the world a better place and prevent against things like bullying. The bill is now awaiting approval from Governor Jan Brewer. This is not, apparently, an April Fool's joke.

From the bill: 

A.  It is unlawful for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend, to use ANY ELECTRONIC OR DIGITAL DEVICE and use any obscene, lewd or profane language or suggest any lewd or lascivious act, or threaten to inflict physical harm to the person or  property of any person.  It is also unlawful to otherwise disturb by repeated anonymous ELECTRONIC OR DIGITAL COMMUNICATIONS the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person at the place where the telephone call calls COMMUNICATIONS were received. 
B.  Any offense committed by use of AN ELECTRONIC OR DIGITAL DEVICE as set forth in this section is deemed to have been committed at either the place where the COMMUNICATIONS originated or at the place where the COMMUNICATIONS were received. 
C.  Any person who violates this section is guilty of a class 1 misdemeanor. 

"ANY ELECTRONIC OR DIGITAL DEVICE" has replaced "A TELEPHONE" in this text, which Forbes' Dave Thier points out "is a straight update of old telephone harassment laws with words like 'electronic' and 'digital' thrown in." He adds, "It makes sense from that perspective – all the legislators did was update an old law for new technology. But by failing to recognize that intensely personal telephone communication is inherently different from comment sections, they’ve crafted a misguided law."

A law that could actually, maybe send people to jail for up to 25 years. But how exactly would this—could this—work? Gizmodo's Andrew Tarantola writes:

Opponents of the bill argue that the wording is overly broad and could easily be interpreted to include not just one-on-one communications but public forums like 4Chan, Reddit, and anywhere else that allows commenting. You thought the banhammer was bad? Try handcuffs.

It could also have a chilling effect on free speech by prohibiting shocking or "profane" language online. And since the bill stipulates that the offense only has to occur on Arizona soil (since a Facebook comment is definitely a geographic place, right?) that basically puts the entire Internet on notice.

In response to criticism of the bill, Arizona Rep. Ted Vogt told CNN that it would not censor the Internet, and, as for the people who think that, "They clearly haven't read the bill. This law targets a course of conduct where an individual is harassing, threatening or annoying a specific (person)." 

But we've read the bill and we still don't get it, both in terms of what it would actually do and how it would be enforced. And if this is specific to texts and emails, why not just say "texts and emails"?

Vogt also said Wednesday that the bill would be amended to say the harassing communications "must be directed at a specific person and must be 'unwanted or unsolicited'—and would "not apply to online comment sections or semi-public forums such as Facebook walls." And yet, if we're going to tackle harassment or annoyances online, comment sections clearly are part of the problem.

Also weird: Harassment is already against the law in Arizona, in a current law which seems to cover the Internet, though it's a class 1 misdemeanor as opposed to the class 3 offense (meaning harsher punishments for Internet violators) Vogt's bill would make it: 

A. A person commits harassment if, with intent to harass or with knowledge that the person is harassing another person, the person:

1. Anonymously or otherwise contacts, communicates or causes a communication with another person by verbal, electronic, mechanical, telegraphic, telephonic or written means in a manner that harasses.

So is this "anti-trolling" law even necessary at all, or is it...maybe...just sort of trolling itself? As defined by Urban Dictionary, trolling is "The art of deliberately, cleverly, and secretly pissing people off, usually via the internet, using dialogue."

On the upside, this law would basically do away with Rush Limbaugh entirely, should he see fit to use the Internet in Arizona. So there's that.

Image via Shutterstock by Clara.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.