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Cyberstalking Law Targets E-Mail, But Could Chill Bloggers

A new law prohibits calling people anonymously with the intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass. A separate provision adds that same prohibition to Internet use, and free-speech advocates worry it could have unintended consequences.

A new law against cyberstalking hasn't been tested in court yet, but both stalking victims' advocates and privacy advocates are critical of it.

President Bush signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act as part of a Department of Justice bill on Jan. 5. It was intended to fight domestic violence and stalking. The law prohibits calling people anonymously with the intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass. A new provision adds that same prohibition to Internet use.

Jeff Lundgren, communications director for the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, claims it doesn't target any Internet except e-mail. Speaking for the committee that drafted the legislation, he said critics are misinterpreting the law because of a lack of understanding.

"All it's doing is updating the law to reflect technological changes," he said in an interview Friday. "Annoy is already in the law for phones, and we're updating it for things like e-mail. A blog is different. I would have to go look for it rather than it coming to me. We wanted to treat e-mail communications the same way we treat phone communications. I think most people would understand if they look at it that's all we're doing here."

That's not how victims' advocates or privacy advocates see it. They believe it could chill free speech.

"While the change appears to be an attempt to close loopholes that stalkers could exploit such as using VOIP to talk someone, if read broadly, it could criminalize Web pages or blogs that criticize, lampoon, or otherwise annoy someone," the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, states in a recent privacy alert.

Jayne Hitchcock, president and founder of the group, Working To Halt Online Abuse, or WHOA said that the way the law is worded, it can be applied to message boards, chat rooms, instant messaging, electronic greetings, and pretty much anything that can be accessed over the Internet without a password.

She's fine with that part. It's the word annoy that bothers the anti-cyberstalking expert.

"I think they're going to be bogged down with petty cases when there are legitimate cyberstalking cases out there," she said during an interview Friday. "I asked them not to include that word several times, and they just wouldn't do it, and we wouldn't support it after that. It's going to really hurt the real cyberstalking victims out there. What the law comes down to is: if you write things that don't agree with my opinions, you're annoying."

Hitchcock has a lesser complaint as well. She thinks the law should have been wrapped into federal stalking legislation, not rules targeting women who are victims of domestic violence.

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