A bill signed into law this week by Georgia Governor Zell Miller has sparked yet another firestorm over what role the government should take in curbing the Internet and whether legislators are sufficiently techno-savvy to make considered judgments.
House Bill 1630 was introduced on February 8 by Georgia House of Representatives member Don Parsons (R-Marietta). The bill makes it illegal to falsely identify yourself or place a registered trademark or logo on your home page. The bill also makes it illegal for email users to have addresses that don't include their own names.
For example, an individual who sets up a site that gives the appearance of representing a government agency by using a state seal could be sued by the state. Also, "vanity" email addresses like firstname.lastname@example.org purchased from a new service called VanityMail.com are now illegal in the state of Georgia. If someone is sued under the new law, the court will decide the penalties.
Parsons says he drafted the bill to solve the problem of online impersonation. "Back in the winter I started hearing about home pages through the news that offer remedies and health related services. To the untrained eye the pages make it appear that the information provided is valid and could be some kind of remedy," Parsons said. "After some thought and research I decided to present the bill."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a civil liberties organization devoted to technology-related issues, says the bill could undermine one of the essential benefits of the Net: the ability to link information posted to one site with related information posted to another.
"The way the bill is written states that you can't put a button on your homepage that says, 'Click here to go to Wired magazine.'" If Wired is copyrighted I would be under violation if I didn't have their permission. Instead, I would have to say, 'Click here to go to this cool magazine,'" said Shari Steel, a staff attorney with the EFF.
Parsons retorts back that the foundation is misinterpreting the bill. "The EFF is reading something into the bill which just isn't there. The bill has nothing to do with links. The bill is about using a name or a trademark to represent your page as being someone else's," he said.
The problem is that the wording of the law leaves it open to multiple interpretations, according to the EFF. "He created a very vague law that could very well make everyone on the Internet a criminal," said Steel. Furthermore, the EFF is accusing Parsons of introducing the bill to help his employer, Bell South, win a lawsuit.
Bell South announced this week that it has filed a suit against startup company "realpages.com" in a battle over domain names on the Internet. Realpages.com designs and maintains Web pages for other businesses. Bell South, however, has a trademark on the term The Real Yellow Pages for its printed directories and claims that this extends to a trademark on the "realpages.com" domain name for the Net. The Baby Bell wants to use "realpages.com" because "Realyellowpages.com" is too long.
"This [bill] has been masterminded by Bell South. It's obvious, considering that the legislator who wrote the bill is a Bell South employee," said Stanton McCandlish, an online activist with the EFF. "This bill would give Bell South the victory that they want, but probably aren't going to get in court. Bell South is going to lose that case and lose big," he said.
Parsons confirms that he works for Bell South but denies the charge. "The Bell South Corporation has no interest in this bill. I don't even think the cases are the same," Parsons said. "I put this bill together long before that case and they are totally separate," he said.
Whatever Parsons' motivations, even some other Georgia representatives agree that he managed to get a bill passed with potential negative repercussions for the use of the Internet.
"Many legislators are afraid of technology and they fear the power of information and the Internet, especially the Internet in the power of the voters and that's a nationwide problem," said Representative Mitchell Kaye (R-Marietta).
Kaye is the Web master of a site called the Conservative Policy Caucus (CPC), which posts information about House activities from the viewpoint of the conservative legislative caucus. During debate over his bill, Parsons referred to the CPC site as an example of one that passes itself off as an official government site.
Kaye says that Parsons is wrong about the CPC site and that it will be unaffected by the bill. But he's still concerned about the potential dampening affect that it will have on the use of the Internet in Georgia. "I'm concerned about the bigger page of the Internet," said Kaye. "The bottom line is that this is an unconstitutional infringement upon free speech and literally puts Georgia in the same category as communist China."
Ridiculous, says Parsons. "I would never want to restrict anybody's freedom of speech, but I believe that end users have some right to know who is behind what they are looking at," he said.