This story was written by Keith Dawson for the Industry Standard's Media Grok email newsletter. It is archived here for informational purposes only because The Standard's site is no more. This material is Copyright 1999-2001 by Standard Media.

Courts Taming the Wild, Wild Web
Dec 12 2000 12:00 AM PST

Judges issue rulings on obscene domain names, anonymous libel and unsolicited e-mail.


This morning's news was peppered with court cases that collectively reined in profane names, spam and anonymous libel on the Net.

USA Today ran an Associated Press story on a case that time and competition have rendered moot. Adult Web-site operators had sued Network Solutions (dossier) because NSI, at the time the sole registrar of domain names, refused to issue names the AP characterized as "www.(pickanyobscenity).com." (Last year, competing registries began accepting registrations for such names.) The judge ruled that domain names are mainly about navigation, not about communicative speech. The AP carried what amounted to a lively debate among lawyers and Internet experts on possible reverberations from the case.

The Washington Post and CNET covered the first libel judgement won by an individual against an anonymous online poster. The Post's story, by Brian Krebs of Newsbytes, disentangled the complicated tale more clearly than did CNET's AP copy. A U.S. District judge awarded $675,000 to an Emory University (dossier) professor after an anonymous poster accused him of taking kickbacks. The poster, unmasked in the investigation, was a former employee of the company he accused of making the payoff. The Post provided the critical detail that that company had fired the libeler. Krebs quoted Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst with the Center for Democracy and Technology, for the bottom line: "There's not much difference between saying slanderous things online or offline. ... In terms of anonymity, it's probably much easier to send letters in the mail."

Two different court cases recently struck blows against unsolicited commercial e-mail. The Los Angeles Times ran an unsigned piece on a rather typical spammer who had hijacked a company's computer to spread millions of spams offering porn and get-rich-quick schemes. What wasn't typical about this case is that the spammer was tracked down and arrested. He pleaded guilty to second-degree forgery and faces up to seven years in prison.

Wired News and InternetNews assigned reporters to the other spam case, this one involving Web host Verio (dossier)'s use of "whois" customer information from Register.com (RCOM) in violation of the registrar's acceptable-use policy. The case has not yet gone to trial, but a federal judge ordered Verio to stop using the whois data to barrage Register.com's customers by e-mail, phone and mail. Writing for InternetNews, Clint Boulton detailed the judge's order and talked to outside experts on the possible effects of the judge's order. Boulton quoted a Washington lawyer who emphasized the b-to-b aspect of the tussle: "What this case does is go further in protecting the relationships a business has with its customers." - Keith Dawson

Judge Rules Against Profane Web Domains (AP)
USA Today

Professor Wins Net Libel Suit
WashTech

Doctor Awarded $675,000 in Net Libel Case (AP)
CNET

Computer Hijacker Pleads Guilty
Los Angeles Times

Verio's Alleged Spam Is Temporarily Canned
InternetNews.com

Judge Blocks Whois Spam
Wired News