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Georgia sued on Net law

Civil rights groups sue Georgia state officials, seeking a court injunction to block a law that they claim restricts free speech in cyberspace.

Civil rights groups today sued Georgia state officials, seeking a court injunction to block a law that they claim restricts free speech in cyberspace.

In filing the suit, which CNET reported last week, the plaintiffs say the law is unconstitutionally vague because it bars online users from communicating anonymously over the Net. Violators of the Georgia Computer Systems Protection Act, which took effect July 1, could face up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

"Fundamental civil liberties are as important in cyberspace as they are in traditional contexts," Ann Beeson, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said today. "The right to speak and publish using a virtual nom de plume has its roots in a long tradition dating back to the very founding of democracy in this country."

The bill could have a chilling effect throughout the Internet. Though the legislation's intent is to prevent consumers from being misled by false advertising or online impersonators, civil rights groups worry that its vague and heavy-handed regulation could stifle free expression, especially that of controversial groups.

The ACLU said this is the first such challenge to state censorship laws but added that more are expected as states enact their own measures to regulate the Net. Among those joining the in the suit are Electronic Frontiers Georgia and Georgia State Representative Mitchell Kaye (R-Marietta).

The bill's sponsor, Georgia Representative Don Parsons (R-Marietta), said that "this is a pro-consumer and pro-business piece of legislation, especially as the Internet becomes more of an avenue for business."

The suit was filed in U.S. Northern District Court of Georgia. Governor Zell Miller and state Attorney General Michael Bowers were named as defendants.

In June, a federal three-judge panel in Philadelphia granted an injunction against the federal Communications Decency Act. The government has appealed the ruling and the case has been referred to the U.S. Supreme Court.