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Behind Bars!

Legal Beat

The Internet is just too free - economically and socially.

Enter: the long arm of the law

The government is now laying its paws on cyberspace - to prevent the existing community from further regulating itself. Who is bringing them in? Citizens unitiated to our intimate little white male frontier enclave.

This page covers the cases bound to establish precedents here in cyberspace.

The story so far

  • US Senator proposes jail time for naughty e-mailers - 12 February 1995
  • University of Michigan student charged by Feds for violent fantasy posting on - 04 February 1995
  • Illinois Institute of Technology confiscates student group's computers upon suspicion of illegal behaviour - 17 January 1995
  • CompuServe moves to license the gif format - 04 January 1995
  • LaMacchia Charges Dismissed - 29 December 1994
  • Executing the Estate of Elvis on the Internet - 11 November 1994
  • Secret telephone files from British Telecom spread over the Internet - late November 1994
  • Carnegie Mellon University drops erotic newsgroups - 3 November 1994
  • Hackers use Lawrence Livermore Berkeley Labs to distribute porn
  • Postal Inspector in Tenessee nabs himself some California sex fiends - first half 1994
  • Other Legal Landmarks
  • Shuttered Sites
  • Webbed Law Resources

  • IIT seizes Student Group's Computers

    17 January 1995

    Eerily similar to the Steve Jackson games incident, but this time perpetrated by a school. When the Illinois Institute of Technology heard tell that members of the Association for Computing Machinery were hacking into other systems on the schools network, they moved to confiscate all the group's computing resources. You would have thought IIT more sensitive to technology, but they ripped the systems out of the wall, leaving only a mangled modem.

    This left 700 faculty and students with their net.lives on hold - their mail and files on a system locked up in a closet somewhere until IIT decides what to do about the ACM's machines.

    The ACM and IIT are at the bargaining table, but so far the terms posted by the school - root access and a separate network for the student system - are being deemed unreasonable. Hell yeah!

    Check the temporary ACM web page for updates.

    .gif licensing

    04 January 1995

    Ubiquitous both on the BBS and the Internet scene, the .gif format is the first wide-scale image format. More porn and pages have been purveyed by .gif than any other graphics standard.

    During our Christmas - New Year's holiday stupor, CompuServe announced that Unisys was requesting licensing fees from CompuServe for the use of the .gif standard - which incorporated chunks of Unisys's LZW compression scheme.

    CompuServe attempted to clear up the resulting confusion and kneejerk reaction by issuing a more explanatory a press release - essentially blaming Unisys. Having arrived at the proper patent situation, Unisys intends to get paid for the use of their technology. They have posted their clarification.

    Not even the sneak release could save them the furor they must have known would erupt.

    Before we freak - they do not intend to hit users. But doesn't every price increase end up hitting users?

    What is important is that both Compuserve and Unisys have said that they do not intend to extract fees from .gifs on web pages. Since most web developers, like me, utilize software made by other folks, we are not responsible for the licensing conerns. We will be responsible for the additional fees however...

    But don't worry, they've extended the grace period on the licensing requirement until the end of January, 1995, one month after they informed everyone.

    My friend Ian McFarland made a comment on this: "It's not like it's brilliant irreplaceable technology, either. The only real value GIF has is as a standard, and if CIS persues this, that will evaporate." Enough people are committed to developing a free and open standard for the net to utilize - it should be coming alone soon. Perhaps Unisys will roll back their licensing requirements, to try and hold on to their position.

    A user posted a web page on the subject, while the official word lives at CompuServe's web site.

    and this heard on the Internet:

    Q: Did you hear the one about the Pentium LZW/3 chip?
    A: Not only are the answers wrong, but seven years later you find a meter running on the CPU!

    Charges Dismissed Against MIT Student David LaMacchia

    29 December 1994

    David LaMacchia, an MIT student, set up a BBS to trade, amongst other things, copywritten software. The DoJ tried to shut him down altogether in United States v. David M. LaMacchia. Basically they were looking to throw his ass in jail and fine him big time for using the net to transmit large quantities of pirated software. They had to set an example, after all! Not to many cases like this out there...

    This case attracted a lot of attention. A Defense Fund was set up in his name.

    But it seems the judge had his own point to prove - that the Department of Justice was overzealously trying to construct and enforce laws without checking with congress first. The way the law was applied, it threatened to make a criminal of anyone providing a copy of copywritten software - a dangerous precedent to set.

    "It is not clear," concluded Judge Stearns, "that making criminals of a large number of consumers of computer software is a result that even the software industry would consider desirable."

    Read the charge dismissal skinny from the defense lawyers

    Executing the Estate of Elvis on the Internet

    11 November 1994

    The woman who ran the Elvis home page was leaned on by representatives of Elvis Presley Enterprises, who demanded the following:
            On behalf of EPE we demand that you immediately withdraw the "Cyber
    Graceland Tour" from the Elvis Home Page on the Internet, and that you agree
    in writing: 1) that you will not in the future reproduce or make publicly
    available the Cyber Graceland Tour or any portion thereof by computer
    database or otherwise, and 2) that you will engage in no further actions
    that infringe EPE's rights. Please be advised that if the Cyber Graceland
    Tour is not removed from the Internet, and if we do not receive the above-
    described written confirmation, within 7 days of the date of this letter, EPE
    will have no choice but to exercise its rights under the law to their fullest
    The full text of the letter is available, as are some interesting copyright links.

    The Elvis people are particularly rabid in persuit of preserving the sanctity of their cash cow. This doesn't mean that other pages with copywritten materials up online are not at risk for this kind of litigation. Take care of yourselves - disclaimers don't always cut it - it's better to figure out a way to either make the material originally yours, get permission, or not use it at all. Or, I guess you could put up whatever you wanted and then quit when the pressure gets too high...

    Politics and Online Ill Will

    Secret telephone files from British Telelcom

    spread over the Internet

    late November 1994

    While Americans were busy stuffing their faces this Thanksgiving, Hackers in Britian rooted through the British Telecom computers and distributed some sensitive information, primarily to journalists. Included were the telephone numbers and addresses of MI5, MI6, Number 10 Downing Street, Buckingham Palace.

    They can't be that upset about the phone numbers - rather that their system was a facile hack for some enterprising youth - who went to the news immediately after. Some guy who read about the hack on the Internet got a job with BT and was himself given access to the sensitive files within four days as a temporary worker. I heard him say that passwords for the British Telecom accounts were often pinned up above the computer terminals.

    Don't yet know of any related web sites - but I would love to find some! Anybody got the text file with the phone numbers/addresses in it?

    CMU drops erotic newsgroups

    3 November 1994

    In a sign of the Internet's rising popularity - and the reaction to the otherwise freewheeling speech that is integral to the net - Carnegie Mellon University has elected to stop providing the following newsgroups:

    It seems like that incident in Tennesee really put the fear of being nailed for obscenity into sysadmins. I will be watching this incident closely to see what comes of freedom of sexual speech on the Internet.

    A web page devoted to Censorship at CMU has all the important information and documentation. For the latest devlopments, try their what's new page.

    Postal Inspector in Tenessee

    nabs himself some California sex fiends

    This may be the most important case of 1994 for cyberporn distributors - certainly among the most ominous. The Bondage, Domination, Submission, Sadism, & Masochism page closed after this ruling.

    Robert and Carleen Thomas were running the "Amateur Action BBS" out of their home in Milpitas, California. People could dial into it over the phone, post messages, and download graphic (indeed) images. They specialized in adults-only sexual material.


    A Tennessee postal inspector, working with an assistant U.S. attorney in Memphis, joined the Thomases' BBS. He then did three things: He downloaded sexually oriented images; ordered a videotape, which was delivered via UPS; and sent an unsolicited child-pornography video to the Thomases. This led to a federal indictment with a dozen obscenity counts, most based on the downloading of the computer images. The indictment also included one child-pornography count, based on the unsolicited video."
    - from "Community standards difficult to apply in cyberspace" by Mike Godwin, from the San Francisco Examiner
    The couple was found guilty of 11 counts of transmitting obscenity through interstate phone lines. Each count means up to five years in prison and a $250k fine. They are appealing.

    The August 8, 1994 San Francisco Examiner article "Ruling sends a chill through the infobahn" is a cursory examination of the issues involved.

    For a thorough exploration of the issues, read "Community standards difficult to apply in cyberspace" by Mike Godwin, dated August 23. Godwin explores the ramifications of the ruling, and the legal precedents involved. In particular, he discusses the Supreme Court ruling on Miller vs. California in 1973 establishing standards for community evaluation and prosecution of obscenity.

    On 21 August of 1994, a San Jose police officer wrote why "Cyborporn can and should be regulated". This, and the articles mentioned above used to be linked to the San Francisco Examiner site, but they've been shifting their stuff around, and I haven't been able to re-forge the links.

    Other Legal Landmarks

    Webbed Law Resources

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