US state's Internet law is subject of lawsuit

A Georgia statute restricting free speech in cyberspace has become the target of a lawsuit filed by a coalition of free-speech advocates.

A Georgia statute restricting free speech in cyberspace has become the target of a lawsuit filed by a coalition of free-speech advocates.

The American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontiers Georgia, a Georgia politician and others filed suit in a Georgia federal district court yesterday hoping to block a Georgia law which makes it a crime to use a name which "falsely identifies" a user on the Internet.

The Georgia statute, which became law on July 1, also prohibits the use of trade names and logos in a way that falsely implies that they have been granted permission to use them, according to the ACLU.

The plaintiffs' main objection to the law stems from its lack of explicitness, says Scott McClain, co-counsel working with the ACLU on the case and a lawyer with Bondurant Mixson Elmore in Atlanta. "A lot of the problem with the law is its vagueness," McClain says.

For instance, if people sign on to America Online and use a pen name, as many do, "that seems to be prohibited by the statute," McClain says.

The law also affects people using companies' logos as links to other sites. For example, Electronic Frontiers Georgia, one of the plaintiffs in the case, currently has a news advisory on their Web page about a recent rate increase by telecommunications provider BellSouth, according to McClain. The advisory also presents a BellSouth logo which, if clicked, takes the user to BellSouth's Web site, where they can express their opinion about the rate increase, he says. Under the new law, Electronic Frontiers Georgia could potentially be sued for falsely implying they have obtained permission to use the logo, McCain says.

The law is also of concern because it has very broad extraterritorial implications, according to McCain. Rather than applying simply to Georgia residents, the law is constructed to apply to any communications that originate, end or even pass through Georgia, he says. Since people have no control over the routing of their communications, theoretically, someone sending email which electronically passed through the state could be prosecuted, McCain says.

"Whether people posting email in Singapore are going to be concerned" about being prosecuted by the State of Georgia is another matter, but they would be procecutable under this law, McCain says.

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