New York Lawmakers Encounter Comments Sections, Freak Out

Ah, the joys of someone with power who just encountered their first bonkers comments section. Via Wired:

Did you hear the one about the New York state lawmakers who forgot about the First Amendment in the name of combating cyberbullying and “baseless political attacks”? Proposed legislation in both chambers would require New York-based websites, such as blogs and newspapers, to “remove any comments posted on his or her website by an anonymous poster unless such anonymous poster agrees to attach his or her name to the post.” No votes on the measures have been taken. But unless the First Amendment is repealed, they stand no chance of surviving any constitutional scrutiny even if they were approved. Republican Assemblyman Jim Conte said the legislation would cut down on “mean-spirited and baseless political attacks” and “turns the spotlight on cyberbullies by forcing them to reveal their identity.”

It’s easy to make fun of the late Sen. Ted Stevens’ for his description of the internet as “a series of tubes,” or to get irritated with legislators who aren’t particularly tech-savvy. But this kind of inexperience has consequences: as ludicrous as this legislation is, and even if it would be struck down immediately, a bill like this eats up the energy of people who have to explain that it’s a bad idea, unimplementable, and ultimately unconstitutional.

But even beyond the bill itself, this is an interesting illustration of how inexplicable internet culture is to people who don’t actively participate it. I imagine it’s hard for Assemblyman Conte to imagine the incredibly dreadful things people are willing to say under their real names, and in forms that show up on their social networks. Maybe he doesn’t have things that he urgently needs to tell someone but that he can’t risk saying under his own name. And perhaps he’s never encountered a forum that he urgently feels the need to participate in, but doesn’t feel that he can join the conversation as himself, and by participating learned how self-policing works. There’s no lost age of internet civility that can be restored with legally unenforceable accountability requirements. There are just different kinds of intimacy that, if you haven’t experienced them, are hard to fathom and embrace.