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Net censorship law under fire

Arguments begin in the ACLU challenge to a Georgia Net law that it says limits free speech.

Arguments began today in the American Civil Liberties Union challenge to a Georgia Net law that it says limits free speech.

The ACLU and other plaintiffs are seeking a temporary injunction against the enforcement of the Georgia Computer Systems Protection Act, which took effect July 1.

The law makes it illegal to falsely identify oneself, to place a registered trademark or logo on a home page without permission, or to claim someone else's identity when sending email. Violators could face up to one year in jail and $1,000 in fines.

The plaintiffs say that the law is vague and that its prohibition of anonymous communication over the Net violates free speech, especially that of controversial groups.

Today, the ACLU will call its first witness Hans Klein, a professor of technology and public policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology , who will give a tour of the Internet to Judge Marvin Shoob of the Northern District Court of Georgia.

A similar tactic was used in the ACLU's landmark case against the Communications Decency Act, in which a three-judge panel in federal district court in Philadelphia ruled that the law was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court will start reviewing that decision on March 19.

As the nation's courts are increasingly faced with precedent-setting cases regarding the Net, the ACLU says its crucial that judges learn about the medium.

"When courts are called upon to decide the rules for what one judge called 'the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed,' it is especially important that they formulate a clear understanding of the nature of that medium," Christopher Hansen, an ACLU national staff attorney said in a statement today.

The lawsuit against Georgia was filed last fall. Joining the ACLU is the Electronic Frontiers Georgia, Atlanta attorney Scott McClain, Georgia state Rep. Mitchell Kaye (R-Marietta), and 14 individuals and groups who maintain Web sites about AIDS, gay and lesbian rights, and the separation of church and state.

American Association for the Advancement of Science Patrick Ball's affidavit testimony states that human rights workers need to communicate anonymously online: "A police officer revealing information about an abusive unit might want to be protected from anyone at all knowing his identity; or the citizen of a very repressive state might not want to risk being accidentally betrayed by a well-meaning international human rights group," his testimony says.

Georgia concedes that the law protects consumers from being misled by false advertising or online impersonators, and is not a form of censorship.

However, both sides are arguing over how to define the law and its potential violators.

The plaintiffs argue that because they use or seek to use computer networks for protected online communications, they could indeed be prosecuted. The law also unconstitutionally restricts the use of trademarked logos as links on the Web, the ACLU says.

But Georgia denies the charges and has asked the court to dismiss the case. It stated in its opposition brief that the law does not apply to pseudonyms, computer names, anonymous communication, or to mere links between the Internet sites.

Following today's demonstration and a review of briefs and affidavits filed by both sides, Judge Shoob will either allow additional evidence or rule on the motions before him.