A newly elected Idaho state legislator is considering drafting a bill to make anonymous blogging illegal.
Ironically, the legislator in question is a retired newspaper editor. (Idaho has a "citizens legislature" that meets only three months a year; few of them are professional politicians.)
Steve Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, was quoted in the Lewiston Tribune as saying, "Anonymity takes away the responsibility to say things in a civil and accurate manner. It provides a cover for the ugliness we see in the debate today. It's hard to read political blogs any more because they are so inflammatory." The paper went on to say he was considering introducing legislation requiring people to use their real names online.
Other papers in the state were quick to chime in. The Pocatello-based Idaho State Journal praised the effort, saying "No name, no credibility seems like a good rule." The Nampa-based Idaho Press Tribune, another conservative paper, said, "Give me a break." The Boise-based Idaho Statesman, a liberal (for Idaho) paper, agreed that anonymity was a problem but disagreed that it should be legislated. The Spokesman-Review (based in Spokane, Washington, and considered to be "the capital of Northern Idaho") called it "a loony notion." Numerous Idaho bloggers, starting with the unequivocal notion, have also weighed in on the subject.
The first reaction, of course, is the whole free speech thing. And yes, cases such as Doe v 2TheMart.com, Inc. upheld the right to free speech on the Internet, noting that "A component of the First Amendment is the right to speak with anonymity."
But let's ignore the free speech thing. Even if the law passed, how would it work?
1. The Idaho state legislature, of course, covers only Idaho. So what would be covered by this law? Bloggers based in Idaho? Sites based in Idaho? Sites read in Idaho?
2. Let's say it's bloggers based in Idaho. Okay. How does a site know that someone's from Idaho? Would all sites have to institute geographical locations? How would one enforce that?
3. Let's say it's sites based in Idaho. Okay. What about people posting to the site who aren't from Idaho? Are they also held to this law?
4. Let's say it's sites read in Idaho -- in which case, *both* of the previous questions apply.
5. How will this be checked? What stops someone from using a fake name? If there's a geographical component, how will *that* be checked?
6. Who's going to do the checking? Who's going to do the enforcing, whether it's of the bloggers or the sites? If someone's not using their real name, how will the long arm of the law track them down in the first place?
7. How's this all going to be paid for? What will the penalties be? Having your blog posting erased? Or something more? A fine? Jail time?
It's ironic, because the United States has a long and honored history of anonymous government criticism, ranging from Benjamin Franklin's Richard Saunders in Poor Richard's Almanack to Alexander Hamilton's and James Madison's "Publius" in the Federalist Papers.