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Senate Bill Threatens Internet Communication

By Sam Hartman
Staff Reporter

A bill recently introduced in the Senate would make MIT liable for harassment and indecency in computer messages sent from computers on the MIT network, according to Vice President for Information Systems James D. Bruce '60.

Senate Bill 314, introduced by Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.), "would expand current law restricting indecency and harassment on telephone services to all telecommunications providers and expand criminal liability to all content carried by all forms of telecommunications networks," according to an analysis released by Voters Telecommunications Watch, a New York-based citizens watchdog organization.

Another analysis, one by the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based think tank, said the bill would hold those who make harassing or indecent content available liable for the content. For example, this interpretation suggests that MIT could be held liable if a student published an indecent picture on a web page stored on an Athena account.

Bruce said he sees no way for MIT to avoid liability if the bill is passed. "MIT's Washington Office has made contact with individuals in the federal government, other universities, and academic organizations" regarding the bill, Bruce said.

Seth S. Finkelstein '85, an active member of the Student Advocates for Free Expression, said that in the worst case, the bill "could require shutting down news, World-Wide Web, and any other general communications system that uses the Internet."

"Censorship and liability problems apply everywhere, and the freedom of expression battles have to be fought all over again with every new medium of communications," Finkelstein said.

The courts have also limited the scope of laws regulating the phone system. "But there is no guarantee that the courts will return a similarly narrow interpretation should this proposal become the new law," Finkelstein said.

Exon says only originator liable

"We're not trying to penalize the universities," Exon said during a Feb. 13 CNN debate. "Clearly that is not the wording of the legislation, but it's part of the hoopla that goes on any time anyone tries to take any action to clean up portions of our society that myself and others believe are bringing great injury, particularly to our young people."

The aim of the bill is "to punish the person who actively sends the message," said Russ Rader, a spokesperson for Exon. "This bill would only target the originator of the message." He said that Exon is open to refining the language of the bill to make that aim clear.

However, the CDT analysis disagrees with Exon's interpretation of the bill. According to this analysis, anyone who transmits material using a telecommunications device can become liable for its contents under the legislation.

Exon's staff "told us the same thing - that the bill is only intended to apply to the originator of the message and that changes to that effect would be forthcoming," said Jonah Seiger, a policy analyst for the CDT. "Unfortunately, we have not seen any changes yet, and Exon's staff made similar promises last year."

An Internet petition organized against the bill gathered 93,976 signatures by March 9 after running for only four weeks.

"Given the short notice and small amount of time the petition would be in circulation, we expected perhaps 20,000 signatures," said Christopher Frankonis, author of the petition said. "By the end of the week, we will probably have hit 100,000," he said. People "signed" the petition by sending an electronic mail message with their name and citizenship status to a collection address.

Frankonis said he thinks the petition will be noticed. "As far as impact, I don't see how, if nothing else, we couldn't at least make a splash with the fact that over 100,000 users of the Internet sign a petition in about 4 weeks' time."

The petition statement and supporting information can be found on the World-Wide Web at http://www.phantom.com/~slowdog.