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Daily Democracy

Ryan Blethen discusses the press, media and democracy. Daily Democracy is part of the Democracy Papers, a series of articles, essays and editorial opinion examining threats to our freedoms of speech and the press.

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May 23, 2008 9:20 AM

Content filtering felony

Posted by Ryan Blethen

Ryan Singel of Wired has been turning out some interesting reports from the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference. On the magazine's Threat Level blog he writes that Internet Service Providers scouring their networks for copyright infringements might be committing felonies.

He quotes a University of Colorado law professor who was on a panel about ISP content filtering. The professor, Paul Ohm, said Comcast's blocking of peer-to-peer applications and Charter Communications idea of using a system to see the URLs visited by its customers could violate the Wiretap Act, which bans eavesdropping.

Any criminal violations might not land on corporate, either. Ohm said system administrators who carry out orders from above to implement these programs would be liable.

"Not only is this a five-year felony, it also has individual accountability," Ohm said. "The sys admin could be sued individually and prosecuted individually If you are asked by your manager to go and do this kind of monitoring, you yourself may be legally exposed."

Talk about a bad day at the office. Seriously though, Ohm raises some salient points. The Federal Communications Commission should consider whether the Wiretap Act applies. If it does, the commissions direction becomes clear. Tough enforcement.

Network providers should want clarity on the Wiretap Act. Better to know sooner if any laws have been broken so the business can be run in a way that does not send employees to jail and damages the trust of customers. Afraid the latter is already happening. The network providers should figure out how to do business in a way that does not raise legal questions instead of waiting for Congress or the FCC to react to the mounting evidence of content interference. Self imposed restraint is much less painful than government imposed restraint.

I have yet to read the Wiretap Act. Will have to do so along with some reporting. Will be back later with more on this topic.

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