A diverse coalition of individuals and groups across the nation plans to file a lawsuit next week against the Georgia Computer Systems Protection Act, charging that it is unconsitutional, CNET has learned.
The law, which went into effect July 1, makes it illegal to falsely identify oneself or place a registered trademark or logo on a home page without permission. The bill also makes it illegal to claim someone else's identity when sending email. Violators could face up to one year in jail and up to $1,000 in fines.
The legislation's intent is to prevent consumers from being misled by false advertising or online impersonators. But civil rights groups charge that it is too vague and heavy-handed and could stifle free expression.
The lawsuit will be led by the American Civil Liberties Union, Atlanta attorney Scott McClain, Georgia state Representative Mitchell Kaye (R-Marietta), and 14 individuals and groups who provide Web sites with information on issues including AIDS, gay and lesbian rights, and the separation of church and state.
The law applies to anyone who sends data that "uses any individual name, trade name, registered trademark, logo, legal or official seal...when such permission or authorization has not been obtained."
The bill's sponsor, Georgia Representative Don Parsons (R-Marietta), told CNET that "this is a pro-consumer and pro-business piece of legislation, especially as the Internet becomes more of an avenue for business. It will give more validity and take some of the skepticism out of conducting business."
McClain and attorneys with the ACLU of Georgia sent a letter in July to Attorney General Michael Bowers seeking a more detailed explanation of the law. But Bowers's office declined, McClain said.
"That gave us the choice of either living with the law and hoping that it was never used or bringing an active challenge to protect the rights of the people who want to use the Internet," he said.
The strongest argument in the case will focus on the prohibition against using screen names and communicating anonymously on the Net. "The act clearly prohibits people from using pseudonyms when they communicate over computer networks, and that's flatly unconstitutional," McClain said.
Restrictions on the use of logos and images also will be targeted. "This portion of the law is so broad that it could potentially prohibit sites from linking to other sites, which could damage the whole system," McClain said.
Because of its implications, the bill could have a chilling effect throughout the Internet, especially for controversial groups.
Already, McClain said, the law is creating confusion for Web site developers. For example, he added, the AIDS survival project had planned to create a Web site but has postponed it indefinitely because they don't want to violate the law.
The lawsuit could be filed as soon as Tuesday, after which the attorney general would have 20 days to file a response. The court would then issue an immediate ruling or decide to hold a trial.
Whatever the outcome, Representative Kaye says the damage has already been done. "This bill has essentially given Georgia a black eye, and that's a problem," he said. "That puts Georgia in the same boat as China and Singapore in regulating free speech."