Georgia Politics Could Put Damper on Using Internet

A new law has the potential to cripple e-mail and Web use

P> Mitchell Kaye knew that being a Republican legislator in a predominantly Democratic state wasn't going to be easy. But he said he never dreamed that partisan politics would put Georgia in the same class as Communist China -- at least when it comes to the Internet.

Kaye alleged that his Democratic counterparts, in an attempt to shut down his World Wide Web site, passed a law that could have a significant ripple effect on how organizations and individuals design Web pages.

In theory, the law makes it a misdemeanor for anyone to put up a Web site that could be confused with an organization's or person's official site. For example, it would be illegal for someone to use the familiar McDonald's golden arches on a Web page unless he represents the fast food franchise.

In practice, however, the law could have broader ramifications. It potentially makes it illegal to mention the word McDonald's -- or set up a link to the company's Web site -- without permission.

"The law really gives Georgia a black eye," said Kaye. "It sends a message to the rest of the world that we do not understand -- and are afraid of -- technology."

The partisan battle began when Kaye put up his Web page and published information about the Georgia legislature's activities, including text of legislation and his commentary. The page originally included the state seal.

Democrats cried foul, claiming that the page tricked people into believing this was the legislature's official Web site. In their first attempt to shut down the site, they introduced a bill that made it illegal for Kaye to use the seal. The bill died. Then Rep. Don Parsons, a longtime Democrat who recently switched to the Republican party, introduced the Georgia Computer Systems Protection Act to help eliminate fraud and false representation on-line.

But critics contend the law, which goes into effect July 1, is vague and open to interpretation. "It's a poorly crafted, unconstitutional law," said Shari Steele, staff counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Under the broadest interpretation, the law would make it illegal for people to use anything but their legal name as their e-mail address. It also could be construed to require prior permission before establishing a link to any Web site.

"I haven't a clue as to how they would enforce this -- people may just ignore it," Steele said.

Because a violation of the law is a misdemeanor, each city solicitor or district attorney will be responsible for enforcement, said Mike Bowers, the state's attorney general. Legally, they must enforce a law unless it is obviously unconstitutional, he said.

In practice, it means that each city will set its own priority in the law's enforcement. And due to the Internet's global reach, if enforced, Georgia potentially could charge people outside state borders with a misdemeanor.

It is also possible the law will have a chilling effect on free speech, said Jeff Kuester, chairman of the 'Net Ethics Committee of the Georgia Bar Association. It really depends on how people -- especially the media -- portray this, he said. If it's presented as narrowly as Parsons intended, such as something that eliminates objectionable behavior, it will have minimal effect on free speech. If it's presented more broadly, it will be more damaging.

"In no way did I want to regulate the Internet... or impede free speech" said Parsons. It "never was intended to target Rep. Kaye," even though Parsons conceded that it is "true that I had concerns [about Kaye's site]."

An amendment to the bill explicitly states that the law does not stop legislators, such as Kaye, from using the Georgia seal on Web pages that are clearly labeled with their name. Parsons also included language that protects telecommunications companies and Internet service providers from being charged or sued because they transmit the data that makes up Web sites.

The legislature needs to revisit the amendment and clarify its intent, said Kuester.

And unfortunately, once one state enacts a law, other states tend to follow. A bill, under review by the California Senate, would shield Internet service providers who remove trademarked material from a site at the request of the trademark holder.

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