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ISP battles for rebels' rights

The ISP that hosted the Republic of Texas Web site sues the government to protect the rights of its former client.

Todd Jagger, owner of what he calls the "world's smallest" Internet service provider, doesn't like the secessionist Republic of Texas rebels. But he has sued the state attorney general to protect their privacy.

The state attorney general's office, seeking to gain information about the rebels, asked to see the records of ten Texas ISPs. Requested items included copies of email and logs of Web site visitors for several groups calling for Texas to split off from the United States.

Eight of them apparently complied, but two--Jagger's ISP, The Overland Network, and Internet Texoma--are refusing to turn over any information until the attorney general's office can produce the court order they contend is required by the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act. So says W. Scott McCollough, the attorney representing the ISPs through The Texas Internet Service Providers Association.

"If [the attorney general] goes to court and gets the order that meets the requirement, then we will turn the information over," McCollough said.

McCollough added he and his clients are especially concerned for people who have had "incidental contact" with the group by simply logging onto the page and checking it out or emailing them.

"It's really a matter of privacy," he said. "Congress has set some very clear rules establishing that these are private communications, and when the government wants this stuff it has to follow a process. That's just not happened yet."

A spokeswoman for the Texas Attorney General's office said the office would not comment because the case is in litigation.

McCollough and Jagger emphasized that their stance has nothing to do with how they feel about the rebellion.

"I don't support them. I don't agree with them," said Jagger, a photographer by trade who started his 100-customer ISP a year ago because he didn't have Net access where he lived. That's beside the point when it comes to the larger, possibly precedent-setting battle over privacy rights, he noted. "They're basically another customer as far as I'm concerned."

Jagger added that he's happy to comply with authorities if they request information properly.

In fact, he already cooperated with local authorities when he reluctantly agreed to close down the Web site used by the rebels, a move that has prompted calls and emails from all over the world, he said.

Jagger he didn't see anything on the Web pages that could be seen as dangerous, but he could understand why the district attorney's office asked him to shut down the sites. Law enforcement officials wanted to isolate the rebels however possible. That included cutting off the electricity, fax, telephone, and Internet access.

Jagger said the rebels must have been uploading information by cellular telephone. "I understand what [the local district attorney's office is] trying to do. Everybody wants to see this situation concluded peacefully, if possible, and quickly, and if I can assist them by turning off their Web page, I feel that's the right thing to do."

The irony of the situation is not lost on him. "On the one hand, I'm cooperating and helping out local law enforcement, and on the other hand, I'm having to sue the attorney general to protect basic customer privacy."