In an effort to combat “fake news,” lawmakers in California are considering legislation that would make it unlawful for residents to “knowingly and willfully” publish false information online.
The state legislation, which rightfully faltered after massive backlash from free speech advocates, would have been a first-in-the-nation to criminalize the production of “fake news.”
In a nutshell, the California Political Cyberfraud Act dictated that:
It is unlawful for a person to knowingly and willingly make, publish or circulate on an Internet Web site, or cause to be made, published, or circulated in any writing posted on an Internet Web site, a false or deceptive statement designed to influence the vote on either of the following:
(a) Any issue submitted to voters at an election.
(b) Any candidate for election to public office.
The bill, of course, would have opened a massive can of worms because it made no attempt to clarify who would be charged with determining the veracity of content published online nor how they would go about doing so.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a leading opponent of the measure, predicted that it would simply green-light political prosecution of bloggers, advocates, journalists and even political candidates.
“Political operatives could file complaints at the slightest hint of hyperbole or smallest misstatement of fact by a candidate,” said EFF investigative researcher Dave Maas. “Prosecutors could launch politically motivated investigations. The bill doesn’t even exempt journalism, leaving bloggers who want to quote false statements before debunking them in a legal limbo. Even satirical websites, such as The Onion, could come under fire for posting technically false information. You could even get in trouble for retweeting something inaccurate that someone else said.”