By virtue of the Interwebs you are reading these words — digitized into ones and zeros, copied over and over, then sent across the wire like lightning to your phone or computer. There, sitting in morning traffic, in the office, or on the porcelain throne, you indulge; with unfettered access to an unlimited supply of cat videos, conversations, and cultural insight just waiting to be revealed. Yet I write you with concern, because as we laugh at the latest .gifs, share links with a friend and read this very post, Florida lawmakers are considering misguided policies that can fundamentally change the very nature of the web.
Right now, there are a pair of bills being discussed in Tallahassee that could set a horrible precedent for our Sunshine State. Senate Bill 604 & House Bill 271, also known as the True Origin of Digital Goods Act (TODGA), would force anyone who creates a website that intends to display, stream, or embed video or music content to list their contact information; including name, email address, and phone number. Why? Even though it was introduced as a “Consumer Protection” bill, it is clearly the opposite — not intended to help consumers, but to protect copyright holders and their ability to track down perceived violators. The problem is, copyright holders already have a well-known method to enforce copyright, the oft-cited Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). So what is this, really? At it’s core, TODGA is about expanding reach and authority against a free and open Internet in Florida. This is no bueno, and both of the main co-sponsors of this legislation, Senator Anitere Flores and Representative Jeanette M. Nuñez, represent Miami.
But where would this apply? If I’m the hot new snap/meer/scope app startup from Miami, listing contact information might be a no-brainer — what if TechCrunch wants a feature? But that’s not the only use-case for the web. What about your friend’s parody site about that big music festival? Or the tumblr page mocking the rogue city official? Twitter personas like @ElBloombito and @SrWHOffical play an important role in our political discourse, helping us keep our sanity during the insane. Moreover, artists, whistleblowers and bloggers may have more serious reasons to protect anonymous speech online, especially with the rise of online harassment aimed at women and minorities. We thankfully have some basic speech protections already, and historic victories against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) & Protect IP Act (PIPA) showed that free speech still matters, especially on the Internet. Now, Florida is trying to pass its own versions of these harmful bills in the form of TODGA. We shouldn’t let this happen.
It is easy to forget why the right to anonymous speech matters, online and in the physical world. But our nation was founded with this right at its core. The Federalists Papers, written to encourage the ratification of our very Constitution, were published under the pseudonym “Publius.” The Papers remained “authorless” until 1818, more than 30 years later, when John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison were finally named as authors. Benjamin Franklin, at the age of 16, penned columns under the guise of a widowed, middle-aged, women named Silence Dogood. His brother was the publisher, and he rejected Franklin’s work until he started submitting under a pen name. The Silence Dogood letters gave readers a unique view of colonial life in America, including critiques of modern religious hypocrisies, the persecution of women, and the educational institution of Harvard, quite taboo at the time. Every version of American civil rights movements and nearly every exposed scandal in our history has relied on anonymous speech at some point. The ability to say what needs to be said without fear of retribution from powers that be is part of what makes American democracy work.
Essentially, TODGA makes online anonymity unlawful in Florida. This isn’t good for consumers, entrepreneurs, outspoken bloggers, creatives, or netizens around the world. Florida is a first step, and we need to send a message saying TODGA cannot stand. While I’ve heard no mention of TODGA by any major news network (a near-complete blackout on the topic), statements have been made by online rights groups concerned with the pending legislation. It’s unanimous, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Center for Democracy and Technology, Fight for the Future, as well as Florida-based lawyer Drew Hinkes, all of which agree this bill threatens free speech and is constitutionally questionable.
As a user of the Internet, you should spread the values of the Internet, and demand anonymous speech be protected online. Fight for the Future has a petition against the bill. Tell your friends, and spread the word against it. As a Floridian, there’s still time to contact your local representative and tell them TODGA needs to stop. You can tweet, email, or call to explain to your officials that the right to anonymity is essential online, and of course, that she should remove her support for the True Origin of Digital Goods Act now.
House of Representatives Co-sponsor
Rob Davis is a member of Code for Miami, and the founder of Code for Fort Lauderdale. Both organizations are civic hacking brigades, which promote open government, open data, and the open web.