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Sponsor: Arizona bill isn't aimed at Internet trolls

John D. Sutter, CNN
 No trolling in Arizona? A lawmaker there denies a state bill aims to shut down online comments sections.
No trolling in Arizona? A lawmaker there denies a state bill aims to shut down online comments sections.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Arizona bill draws outrage from bloggers, civil liberties advocates
  • Some compare legislation to censorship efforts by China
  • The bill's sponsor says the proposed law is being misinterpreted
  • It never aimed to censor the Internet or shut down online comments, lawmaker says

(CNN) -- Bloggers this week pounced on an Arizona cyberbullying bill, comparing the legislation to online censorship efforts in Syria and China and saying that lawmakers in the state fundamentally don't understand the Internet.

"Trolling could get you 25 years in jail in Arizona," declared a headline on Gizmodo.

The fear is that the bill would prohibit hateful comments on news and social-media sites, amounting to a ban on so-called Internet trolling.

The problem: The bill won't do any of that, its sponsor told CNN on Wednesday.

"I think they're absolutely mistaken," Arizona Rep. Ted Vogt said of bloggers and civil liberties groups that said the bill would censor the Internet. "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)."

Here's the paragraph in the bill that got everyone riled up:

"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 communications were received."

Observers said that language was overly broad and could be applied to censor the comments sections of websites and other public digital forums.

Vogt said Wednesday that the bill would be amended to say those harassing communications must be directed at a specific person and must be "unwanted or unsolicited." Those updates did not appear yet on an online version of the bill viewed Wednesday morning.

The bill will not apply to online comment sections or semi-public forums such as Facebook walls, Vogt said.

"With Facebook, you've got control over who your friends are," he said. "So if somebody is threatening you and you never de-friend them then you're not controlling it. You're inviting people to comment freely on your Facebook page. You can de-friend them and you can end the problem there."

Comments sections are the same, he said, since websites don't have to invite people to comment and can take down those sections if they are worried about threats.

The changes appear to be a response to online outrage about the bill, although Vogt denied that is the case. The intent of the bill has not changed, he said.

In a March 29 letter to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, the Media Coalition, a free-speech group, said the legislation was overly broad and could curb free speech online.

"H.B. 2549 is not limited to a one to one conversation between two specific people. The communication does not need to be repetitive or even unwanted," the group wrote. "There is no requirement that the recipient or subject of the speech actually feel offended, annoyed or scared."

The bill was intended to update existing Arizona harassment law, which targeted only telephone communications, according to Vogt, the legislator.

"The law was put on the books back in the '70s when we were using the copper-wire telephone," he said. "What this law is, is really an update to the year 2012, when we not only communicate by telephone but by text message and e-mail, etc."

Vogt said the bill will go back to a conference committee for revision before the state House and Senate vote on it again. The legislation would then await the governor's signature.

Asked if it is likely to pass, Vogt responded in a word: "Absolutely."

Got a (non-trollish) comment on this comment-related law? Let us know in the comments section.

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