I am generally in favor of protecting children from inappropriate material on the Internet and elsewhere. However, this time some state legislators have implemented new laws that are ludicrous. In fact, if I keep writing and sending these newsletters in the same manner that I have for the past nine years, I could be sent to jail.
Ridiculous? Read on.
In Michigan and Utah, laws went into effect on July 1, 2005, that will prohibit anyone from sending e-mail to any address on certain watch lists. I will be guilty of a felony if I violate certain sections of these laws. Any individual in those states can sue me for any violation, with penalties including imprisonment, making the laws a very serious legal threat.
So far that sounds okay. Now let's dive in a bit deeper to find out what constitutes a violation.
The Michigan law makes it a felony to send an e-mail message to any Do Not Contact address if the e-mail contains a link to a site with information on, or ads about, any product that a young person under 18 "is prohibited by law from purchasing... [or] possessing."
At first glance, that sounds reasonable. One would assume that "is prohibited by law from purchasing... [or] possessing" refers to pornography, and I will be the first to state that I don't want to refer anyone, regardless of age, to a site that contains ads for pornography.
HOWEVER, it seems that our lawmakers, in their "infinite wisdom," have broadened the interpretation. They actually make it a crime for this newsletter to link to any site containing ads for alcohol, tobacco, credit-card and financial accounts, mortgages, car rentals, gambling, and the myriad other things that minors aren't supposed to have.
Think about this for a minute: If I write an article about a genealogy-related topic and I include a link to another genealogy-related site or a newspaper's site, and that site has an ad now OR IN THE FUTURE for a rental car company or for a home mortgage, I can be jailed?
True, according to the new law passed in Michigan. It says that I cannot link to any site that has an ad for any product that a young person under 18 "is prohibited by law from purchasing... [or] possessing." Even worse, I could check that site today, see no such ads, and therefore create a link to it. However, if that web site owner places such an ad on their site in the future and my link remains online on my newsletter site, I am in violation.
Since I cannot predict what ads or subjects might appear on all of the sites that I link to, there is no practical method for me to comply with this Michigan law.
I am reminded of a saying by Milton Friedman: "The government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem."