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Court exempts NSI from policing domains

Providing further recognition that Network Solutions is not legally liable for the way its customers use domain names, a state court in Pennsylvania dismisses the company from a lawsuit.

    Providing further recognition that Network Solutions is not legally liable for the way its customers use domain names, a state court in Pennsylvania dismissed the company from a lawsuit targeting a Web site that threatened the lives of people who spoke out against racist groups.

    Pennsylvania attorney general Mike Fisher sued NSI and seven others last October, alleging that they acted in concert to allow the functioning of Alpha.org. The Web site featured pictures and text that threatened people who appeared on a television news program about hate groups operating in Philadelphia. NSI was dismissed from the suit last month, the company said.

    Legal wrangling over who is responsible for content on Web sites is not new, though registrars generally have been left out of the debate. An array of cases has brought up whether Internet service providers are responsible for the content of Web sites they host. Some argue they should be responsible, because they make it possible for information to be posted to the Net. Others disagree, arguing that ISPs should not be forced to police their networks.

    NSI spokesman Brian O'Shaughnessy declined to discuss the matter except to say the judge "dismissed [NSI from] the case once he understood the difference between a Web site and a domain name." When brought in as a third party to trademark disputes and other legal battles, NSI has argued that it is a neutral actor that provides domain names on a first-come, first-served basis. Courts for the most part have been receptive to that argument.

    The Webmaster and ISP hosting Alpha.org, however, were not let off the hook. Last February a court in Berks County, Pennsylvania, found that Alpha HQ, company founder Ryan Wilson, and service provider Stormfront had engaged in ethnic intimidation and harassment for their part in hosting the site.

    The suit alleged that the Web site threatened the lives of employees at a civil rights agency in Berks County shortly after they appeared on a special news report by Philadelphia NBC affiliate Channel 10 called "The State of Hate."

    One Web page called Bonnie Jouhari, a fair-housing specialist with the Reading-Berks Human Relations Council, a "race traitor" who one day "will be hung from the neck from the nearest tree or lamppost." A separate page showed another employee, Ann Van Dyke, next to an image depicting the bombing of the council office, which is located near Philadelphia.

    Stormfront, which hosts other racist Web sites, removed Alpha.org about a week after the lawsuit was filed, said Wilson, the Alpha HQ director, in an interview. Wilson added that he had lacked the funds to fight the lawsuit but contended that the suit was flawed because it violated his right to free speech and challenged behavior well outside of Pennsylvania.

    "There was no intent to entice people to commit harm to any individual on the page," Wilson said, adding that the site was being hosted by a server located in California.

    But Sean Connolly, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania attorney general's office, disagreed.

    "You can't threaten to kill someone whether you do it by mail, verbally, or over the Internet," Connolly said. "Just because the Internet is a new technology doesn't mean you can break Pennsylvania law and threaten to kill someone."