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Baby Bell threat raises issues

A Bell Atlantic exec?s threatening note to an ISP about a user?s site brings up several questions about online privacy, harassment, and censorship.

    A Bell Atlantic executive, whose home phone and address were posted online by a critic of the telephone company's support for new Net access fees, has threatened the site's host with legal action if the Web page is not removed.

    Last Wednesday, the executive sent the following message in an email to Internet service provider ExisNet: "I want to bring to your attention some material that may be hosted at your Web site, which we find to be very offensive," stated the letter from Eric Vaughn, Bell Atlantic's director of Internet services, one of four executives whose personal data was posted on an ExisNet customer's home page.

    "If it is not permanently removed, we will have no choice but to pursue every legal means possible to see that the material is removed and that the guilty parties are dealt with appropriately," he added.

    The site was posted four months ago, and called for surfers to "harass" the Bell Atlantic employees. The message was altered yesterday, stating, "I'm not suggesting that you letter-bomb them, destroying [sic] their property, or bedding [sic] the wives of these four out of spite, but you could annoy them, pressure them, or just send numerous subscriptions of various magazines to them."

    Vaughn's move may have been intended as an elbow nudge and wink from one ISP to another, but ExisNet says it was being asked to censor its customer or face legal ramifications. The dispute also brings up questions as to whether the site's creator was breaking the law by promoting the harassment of others. Finally, the incident adds to some existing concerns about the proliferation of personally identifiable information on the Net.

    "I'm not thrilled by the site either, but I'm a provider, not a censor," said Steve Haynes, president and CEO of ExisNet. "For Bell Atlantic to send me a message like that was totally out of line."

    ExisNet does prohibit the publishing of material that is illegal under local, state, and federal law, but doesn't monitor customers? activities. "You can't require good taste--people are allowed to express themselves," Haynes said.

    In the past, ISPs across the country seemed to agree on at least one thing--that they were third-party carriers of information, and therefore not inclined to police customers? activities on their services. Recently, however, ISPs have been quick to remove users' personal home pages after public complaints or negative publicity.

    For example, America Online removed a controversial site featuring serial killers this month, after Wyoming's governor said he objected to the site. (See related story) About a week ago, GeoCities also removed a Web site containing a fake photo of Princess Diana in the car wreck that killed her, as reported by CNET's NEWS.COM.

    The ExisNet site doesn't spark the same sexy controversies, which makes it easier for the small ISP to keep its mitts off the site. This also isn't the first battle between the Baby Bell, which offers Net access, and ExisNet, which serves about 4,000 customers.

    Last year, ExisNet opposed Bell Atlantic's and other telcos? request that the Federal Communications Commission institute per-minute access charges for connecting ISP customers to the Net.

    Today Bell Atlantic officials signaled that they are backing off the threats made to ExisNet. "Mr. Vaughn may have exceeded his authority," said Larry Plumb, director of communications for Bell Atlantic.

    Still, the four executives have been harassed at home as a result of the anti-Bell Atlantic site, Plumb said, so the company is not abandoning the issue altogether.

    "In terms of common decency, the site is over the top. I suspect many of us would object to having incidents at work coming back to haunt us at home," he added.

    Federal law prohibits making "obscene or harassing telephone calls." According to legal experts, "encouraging" others to badger someone could be proven illegal as well. So the ExisNet site creator, Andy Wood of Virginia, could be seen as an "agent" of a crime.

    Wood contends he found all the executives? personal information on the Net using a white-pages site. Nevertheless, he has changed the site in an attempt to skirt criminal liability. "I removed the word 'harass' because I didn't want to tell people to break the law," he said.