• "Annoying" E-Mailers Could Face Jail Time
  • February 24, 2006
  • Law Firm: Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP - Los Angeles Office
  • A federal law that went into effect last month criminalizes anonymous Internet communications that "annoy."

    The law prohibits anyone from posting annoying Web messages or sending annoying e-mail messages without disclosing his or her true identity. Theoretically, it could include just about any unsolicited commercial e-mail that disguises the sender's identity, which is already a civil violation of the federal CAN-SPAM law. But it could also apply to chat room users and even whistle-blowers who file a complaint against a company under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, if the executives of the company decide that it "annoys" them.

    The law has already sparked a lawsuit by a Web site that lets people send anonymous e-mail for a fee. TheAnonymousEmail.com, operated by a privately held Scottsdale, Arizona, company called The Suggestion Box, offers the ability to send anonymous messages for a $19.95 subscription fee. The company said the suit was necessary because the law is so broad that it makes providing the service a crime.

    The challenge to the "annoy" law, filed in federal district court in Arizona, asks for a preliminary injunction barring federal prosecutors from enforcing the rule. It claims the law's invocation of the word "annoy" is "ambiguous, overbroad and vague" and violates the First Amendment and the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

    The law, called the Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act, amends existing law dealing with telephone calls by extending new criminal sanctions to the Internet. Unlike other legislative proposals dealing with Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), the "annoy" restrictions apply broadly to any form of Internet communications, not just VoIP.

    Significance: The challenge to the law will probably turn on how it defines the word "annoy." The government has limited authority to restrict speech, provided the restrictions are not overly ambiguous, broad or vague.