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Legal Issues

Fight for Internet Civil Rights Goes Global

 

 By Shelley M. Liberto, Esq. (shelleyliberto@wwwiz.com)

 

            In the last five years or so, the evolution of the Internet as a primary means of communication has challenged conventional social, political and legal doctrines throughout the world.  The policies generated by governments in response to the integration of the Internet into our lives have been as experimental as the technology itself.  Not infrequently, governments have reacted to this rapid change without sensitivity to traditional and widely accepted principles of civil rights.  As a consequence, nations have instituted a number of ``false starts" that, but for the astute advocacy of online civil rights organizations, may have resulted in the criminalization of heretofore accepted behavior, if not thwarted the local development of the Internet altogether.

This article will provide a survey of the sorts of issues raised throughout the world by responses of various governments to the Internet as a new medium of communication, and particular organizations that have challenged them with not infrequent success.  The civil rights issues focus on freedom of expression, including a right to anonymity without which expression without fear of retaliation would be impossible.

United States–Electronic Frontier Foundation and Chatroom Anonymity

The Electronic Frontier Foundation of San Francisco (EFF) is a nonprofit public benefit corporation dedicated to preserving free expression on the Internet, protecting Internet privacy, and advocating Internet software architecture that builds in free speech, privacy and fair use of online information. WWWiz Magazine reported on the EFF's legal advocacy in defense of domain name rights against Ford Motor Company in the November 2000 issue at http://wwwiz.com/issue48/html/article1.html.  The EFF's ( http://www.eff.org) current concern, which reflects the primary cutting-edge issue confronting civil rights on the Internet in the United States, is the protection of anonymity in chatrooms.

In a case pending in federal court in California, a disgruntled employer has sued three unnamed ``Doe" defendants and served a subpoena on Yahoo! to force Yahoo!'s disclosure of their identity.  The plaintiff's attorneys identified the defendants in the subpoena by their Yahoo! screen names.  The plaintiff claims it was maligned in chatroom discussions by four individuals who ``must be" former employees.  The EFF, staffed by Internet attorneys, has formally appeared in the action representing Does 1 and 2 in an effort to quash the subpoena.  The motion raises fundamental free speech issues on the Internet, and promises to result in a ruling that will create new law and dictate future policy on Internet anonymity in the United States.

Great Britain–Foundation for Information Policy Research Attacks the UK's Anti-EncryptionBill

             Britain's Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR) has won several journalistic awards for its reporting on the impact of freedom of expression by the UK's new Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill, commonly referred to as ``RIP."  FIPR ( http://www.fipr.org) is an independent body that studies the interaction between information technology and society, whose purpose is to identify, research and promote public understanding between the high-tech world and UK policy-makers.  The proposed Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill requires all Internet service providers to cooperate with the government to obtain encryption keys for all Internet transmissions through their servers.  The objective is to permit the government to rapidly and automatically decode all Internet communications through UK ISP's at the flip of a switch.  ISP's would be required to facilitate the government's ``investigation" of encrypted messages at their own expense.

            The civil rights concern is obviously that of wholesale denial of privacy of communications on the Internet of all persons and entities, regardless of content, in deference to claims of national security.  The proposal raises similar issues to those aired by the U.S. Justice Department's use of the aggressive Internet mining software known as ``Carnivore."  The FIPR is credited with triggering a national debate on RIP whose public radio dialogue is archived on RealPlayer and live streaming transmissions at http://www.fipr.org/rip.

Australia–Electronic Frontiers Australia Monitors New Sweeping Censorship Law

             Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) is a nonprofit organization formed to protect and promote civil liberties on the Internet by legislation advocacy.  The EFA (http://www.efa.org.au) also drafts and proposes model legislation and policy for Australia pertaining to the Internet.  In mid-1999, the Australian House of Representatives passed sweeping Internet censorship legislation to regulate adult content on the Internet.  Under the new law, ISPs are required to provide ``approved filters" to their end users at a charge.  The bill also bans all sexually explicit content posted on Australian ISPs and imposes special procedures for sites hosting content that is merely adult oriented.  The law imposes a rating system that brands sites as either ``R-rated" or ``X-rated."  X-rated sites are banned altogether, while R-rated sites must comply with technical requirements verifying that users are over 18 years of age.  The law is inconsistently enforced among the various states and territories of Australia that have implemented their own Internet censorship laws.  For example, in November 2000, an Internet censorship bill was introduced in the South Australian Parliament that would criminalize making available adult content to adults that is accessed by children.

China–Digital Freedom Network Defends Use of Internet to Support Democracy

It should be of no surprise that civil rights advocacy groups in China are not permitted to use the Internet to advance their causes.  Accordingly, the Digital Freedom Network (DFN) of Newark, has undertaken to promote the issue of the Chinese government's ban of the use of the Internet to promote domestic human rights.  The DFN ( http://www.dfn.org) defines itself as an organization that promotes human rights around the world by use of Internet activism and by providing an online voice to those attacked for the content of their expression. 

DFN has established a Web page from which interested persons may communicate with the Chinese government about the prosecution of Chinese activists who use the Internet to criticize the Chinese government.  In September 2000, Chinese activist Qui Yenchan was sentenced to four years in prison for attempting to distribute a dissident information bulletin on human rights and the Chinese democratic movement on the Internet.  Physicist and dissident Wang Youcai was sentenced in December 1998 to 11 years in prison for attempting to organize an opposition party by sending e-mail messages to dissidents in the United States.  Software engineer Lin Hai was sentenced in January 1999 to two years in prison for providing 30,000 e-mail addresses to the pro-democracy Internet newsletter V.I.P. Reference.  The Web page provides information about the repressive policy of the Chinese government toward the use of the Internet for political purposes.  The Web page ( http://www.dfn.org/stand/china/freesci/freesci.htm) also provides a CGI template to allow viewers to send e-mail messages expressing their concerns to Chinese officials, and also provides the names, street addresses, e-mail addresses and phone numbers of members of the Chinese government in a position to influence the status of Internet dissidents. 

Bulgaria, Portugal and France

            Other international locales have been the subject of their own civil liberties controversies on the Internet.  The Portuguese advocacy Web site known as ``Protesto" (http://members.tripod.com/~Protesto_MC/index_eng.html) has been credited with causing the Portuguese government to reopen the national Web hosting facility known as the Teravista, which was closed by the Minister of Culture when the government discovered soft-porn scanned images.  The Bulgarian advocacy Web site known as the Internet Society-Bulgaria (http://www.isoc.bg/kpd/index2-eng.html) was successful in its lawsuit against the Bulgarian Ministry of Telecommunications, which resulted in classifying Internet services as ``non-licensed" rather than ``licensed" services, thereby avoiding government regulation and taxation of the Internet in Bulgaria.  The French advocacy Web site known as ``L'Organe" (http://www.lorgane.com/altern.html) continues to monitor the heavy-handed French court system that recently forced the shutdown of an entire Web site in a civil action wherein a movie star was depicted in the nude in a cut-and-paste image.

            The cause of civil liberties on the Internet, while reaching international political proportions, has also finally made the annals of folklore.  A poem written by Alara Rogers of Aleph Press:

  First they came for the hackers.
  But I never did anything illegal with my computer,
  so I didn't speak up.

  Then they came for the pornographers.
  But I thought there was too much smut on the Internet anyway,
  so I didn't speak up.

  Then they came for the anonymous remailers.
  But a lot of nasty stuff gets sent anonymously,
  so I didn't speak up.

  Then they came for the encryption users.
  But I could never figure out how to work encryption software anyway,
  so I didn't speak up.

  Finally they came for me.
  And by that time there was no one left to speak up.
 

 Shelley M. Liberto is an attorney whose practice focuses on intellectual property and Internet-related issues.  His Web site is located at http://www.libertolaw.com.
 
 

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