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Arizona lawmakers weigh 'anti-trolling' law

05 Apr 2012

The state of Arizona has triggered a debate over free speech and civil rights by proposing a bill which would allow the prosecution of annoying or disruptive behaviour online.

Dubbed HB 2549, the legislation would seek to place criminal penalties on any user who was found to be "using any electronic or digital device, instead of a telephone, with the intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend a person."

The so-called "anti-trolling" bill garnered public attention when local media reported that the Arizona state senate had issued a preliminary approval for the law.

Under the proposals penalties include prison terms for those who had engaged in threatening or harassing behaviour online or via mobile devices.

The law, which has since been tabled for further review and changes, drew an immediate outcry from free speech and user advocacy groups who accused the state of violating US protections on expression.

The group Media Coalition sent an open letter to the Arizona state senate and governor Jan Brewer speaking out against the proposed legislation.

"It would apply to general communication on websites, blogs, listservs and other internet communication. The communication does not need to be reptitive or even unwanted," Media Coalition wrote.

"There is no requirement that the recipient or subject actually feel offended, annoyed or scared. Nor does the legislation make clear that the communication must be intended to offend or annoy a specific person."

The debate over rights to free speech online extend far beyond Arizona. Nations including China, India and Australia have sought to place strict controls on content the government has deemed to be offensive or subversive.

Such laws have left internet firms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter with conflicts over how to offer their services while still respecting the rights of users.

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Shaun Nichols

Shaun Nichols is the US correspondent for He has been with the company since 2006, originally joining as a news intern at the site's San Francisco offices.

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