Going viral: New law could criminalize your sharing
“Eww! You’ve got cooties!” Sound familiar? Admit it: You had cooties a few times back in elementary school. Of course, anyone you touched after that pronouncement also had cooties. The affliction was fictional, but the ostracism was real. And cooties were hard to avoid.
Well, brace yourself, because a new species of cootie is about to burst forth from Washington DC, if the SHIELD (Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination) bill, introduced in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, becomes law. [S315 and HR703]
What SHIELD would do is amend the 1917 Espionage Act in order to prevent the spread of additional classified information from the WikiLeaks folks – or from any untraceable Internet source.
Under it, anyone who passes along any classified information “concerning the human intelligence activities of the United States” – even if it has already been leaked elsewhere – will be a criminal, if the information is “prejudicial to US interests.”
Well, now, that’s a pretty broad category, don’t you think? Mind you, the point of this bill is NOT to punish those who leak classified information. That’s already a crime, and covered under the Espionage Act of 1917.
No siree, the people targeted in this bill are those who pass along the information. And who passes along information? Journalists come to mind instantly, but then there are the regular shmoes like you and me who use the Internet.
If this bill had been law back in 2003, and information had been leaked revealing that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that – hypothetically, of course – the Bush administration knew that there were no such weapons in Iraq (information that would have been “prejudicial to US interests” because it could have spoiled the administration’s plans to invade Iraq) then anyone who relayed that information would have been in violation of the law.
Not only would, say, The New York Times or The Hook have been in violation of the law if they’d published this information, but anyone commenting on a blog who had cited the original tidbit could have been prosecuted. Or anyone sending a “hey did you hear about?” email message or posting a link to a relevant article on Facebook. (If we’d had Facebook back then.)
Not for nothing do we say a story has “gone viral.” Nowadays, information spreads like a virus. The label you could acquire from spreading classified information (labels like “traitor,” “felon,” and “terrorist”) could rip through our population like an infestation of third-grade cooties. And with this new Washington strain of cooties, ostracism is the least of your worries.
Should this SHIELD bill become law, then you (yes, you – you with your forwarding of email messages and the comments you post that you think are anonymous and your itch to pass along interesting chunks of information by way of tweets and links) could be fined, and imprisoned for up to ten years for disseminating what might well be the truth. (Ten years!)
WikiLeaks may be the source of the cooties, but pretty soon, as the leaked information spreads, NBC and FOX News, Ariana Huffington and AOL have cooties, too. It’s only a matter of time before you’ll be tagged with cooties – expensive ones, the kind that require legal counsel, the kind that could put you behind bars.
Here’s a fun fact: The letters in “SHIELD” stand for ‘‘Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination.” Bear in mind that, traditionally, a “shield” law is a statute that offers protection to journalists so they don’t have to reveal their sources in court.
A shield law protects journalists.
And here we have a proposed law that would expose journalists to fines and imprisonment for reporting the news. Could the name of this bill be more cynical? I don’t think so.
Of course, in this brave new world of electronic communication, there’s a little journalist in all of us.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we all – you and me and Katie Couric and Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart – if we all had some sort of protection? Some kind of legal document that would guarantee our freedom to disseminate information to one another without fear of fines and imprisonment.
If you can think of a document like that, put a link to it on Facebook, forward it to your friends. Maybe it’ll go viral and we’ll remember who we are and where we’ve come from.
Free Union resident Janis Jaquith has been writing and uttering essays for NPR-affilated WVTF radio since 1997.