Molehill Grows Into Mountain

War of words between hackers and PSINet evokes passion and principle

P> The Hell's Angels of the Internet caught up with PSINet Inc. After legal threats and rebuttals, 2600, one of the leading magazines for and by the computer hacker community, has emerged a self-proclaimed victor in a battle against one of the leading Internet service providers.


"We won the battle, and we attribute our victory entirely to the voice of the Internet," said Emmanuel Goldstein, editor of 2600, who was only available by e-mail for an interview.

The incident started when the publication, which shares hacking tips and identifies security weaknesses for hackers, contacted PSINet of Herndon, Va., for ISDN service. The battle was over whether 2600 could use PSINet to transmit data communications over a 56 kilobit phone link known as integrated services digital network, or ISDN. Such a link would provide substantial savings over other ways ISDN clients are billed. The magazine claims it had been reassured by PSINet that such a connection was possible, but PSINet later refused to provide the service and kept a $1,300 payment, according to documents posted on 2600's World Wide Web site. PSINet eventually refunded 2600's money after the magazine used the Internet -- and no lawyers -- to get its side of the story out.

According to Goldstein, PSINet misled the magazine.

But the details of this battle may obscure bigger issues. What right does an on-line service have to deny access to certain customers, and how does that impinge on the right of individuals to use cyberspace as they see fit? It is still unclear how much service providers are responsible for the activities of their customers on-line. PSINet denies that it limits service to any customer.

2600 has often been accused of disseminating copyrighted material such as confidential phone company network management manuals.

In the meantime, the on-line services industry is pushing for a legal provision that would protect it from liability for the suspect activities of its customers, such as copyright violation.

Brian Muys, director of corporate communications for PSINet, speculated that the publication intended to use the line inappropriately to bypass high surcharges imposed by telephone companies. He said he thinks they planned to use the line for communication and discounted long distance service for 2600 staff. "I think they wanted to create their own 'Friends and Family' service," said Muys.

"It was a matter of misinterpretation and misconstrued and disappointed expectations for 2600," said Muys, who added that the sales representatives at PSINet probably weren't fully aware they were speaking with the magazine 2600.

But Goldstein countered, "The contract was pretty non-specific." He explained, "It was their definition of ISDN service, not referred to in the contract, with which we had problems."

According to 2600, the contract was signed under false pretenses, and the magazine demanded a refund of the $1,300 it had paid. PSINet initially refused.

That's when the cyberpieces hit the fan. 2600 retaliated and created the 'PSI Hell' button on their Web page. Complete with the PSINet logo, the page recounts the tale of the two companies, detailing recorded phone conversations where PSINet sales representatives said they offer ISDN voice lines.

According to Robert C. Bernius, PSINet's attorney at the Washington law firm Nixon, Hargrave, Devans & Doyle LLP, 2600 illegally used PSINet's logo and illegally recorded PSINet staff.

"You cannot record people without their consent in most states, including Pennsylvania [where the 2600 staff called]," said Bernius. "Regarding the trademark law, if you don't police your marks, you lose them."

In a Jan. 18 letter, Bernius requested that 2600 remove the logo and recordings from the Web page by the next day. The magazine complied. But the recordings were a different matter. The New York publication said the rules of recordings do not apply to residents of New York, even though the recording took place in Pennsylvania. 2600 executives said they left the recordings on the voice mail of Deborah Nicely, a customer service representative for PSINet, to prove that PSINet representatives were selling ISDN service over voice connections. 2600 said it never got a response.

Muys said 2600 failed to ask the right questions about a complicated technology. "We based their service on what our mainstream customers use it for," he explained.

According to Muys, PSINet was not concerned about having the hacking magazine as a client. "We make the service available to anyone as long as they respect the terms of their contract and pay their bills, " said Muys. "We're not in the business of censorship or content control."

2600 uses another service provider and has removed all defamatory material on PSINet from its Web page.

"We hope they learned something from this," said Goldstein.


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