Illinois lawmaker hastily pulls bill that would have stripped online anonymity

State Sen. Ira Silverstein's Internet Post Removal Act was introduced earlier this month

An Illinois state senator who earlier this month introduced a bill that would have required anonymous online posters to reveal their true identities is planning on pulling the bill after taking intense criticism from those opposed to it.

State Sen. Ira Silverstein, a Democrat representing the state's 8th District, introduced the "Internet Post Removal Act" in the state Senate on Feb. 13. The bill would require website administrators to remove anonymous comments posted on their websites upon request, unless the posters of those comments agree to provide their full identity.

The proposed legislation would require anyone posting anonymous comment on social networks, blogs, forums and other online venues to agree to attach their name to the post if they want the comments to remain online. The bill also would require them to confirm the accuracy of their IP address, legal name, and home address.

News of Silverstein's bill drew considerable criticism from several quarters.

In a blog post earlier this week, the Citizen Media Law Project blasted the attempted legislation as a clumsy effort to govern anonymous speech online.

"The entire premise of this bill is fundamentally repugnant to the First Amendment and may actually harm those that it is likely intended to help protect," the blog noted. The blog theorized that the bill was probably prompted by worries about "evil, caustic, and angry remarks made in discussions about individuals (like, say, state senators)," by anonymous posters.

"Much of this is protected speech, of course, and would still be protected were a real name ascribed to the post," the blog posted added.

Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) noted that the proposed legislation raised substantial First Amendment concerns.

"Private web sites may adopt policies that require actual identity for those who post comments," Rotenberg said. "But it is very different for the government to mandate this requirement," he said. "The Supreme Court has repeatedly said that the First Amendment protects anonymous speech."

In practical terms, the state cannot pass a law requiring anonymous posters to reveal their identity because the U.S Supreme Court has held such disclosures to be unconstitutional, he said.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune published Thursday, Silverstein said he was withdrawing the bill because he had taken a lot of heat for proposing it.

An aide from the Illinois lawmaker's office confirmed the decision to Computerworld on Friday but could not say whether the bill has already been withdrawn or will be shortly.

Silverstein's bill and his decision to pull it comes weeks after the Illinois Appellate Court for the First District ruled to protect the identity of a tenant accused of badmouthing her previous landlord's rent collection practices on Yelp.

The landlord had filed a lawsuit seeking to force Yelp to reveal the identity of the anonymous poster claiming that the individual's comments had caused financial damage. A trial court threw out the petition, finding that the landlord had failed to show any real damages. The appellate court upheld the ruling.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

See more by Jaikumar Vijayan on Computerworld.com.

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