Originally created 09/20/96

Hot-button issues discussed at Net law seminar



SEATTLE - Imagine an expansive sea, open to imagination, discovery, travel and adventure. Then, toss in a few sea monsters.

Panelists at the recent second annual Internet Law Symposium at Seattle University spoke of the promise of the Internet - but were also mindful of the global system's perils.

Some Internet-specific problems, for instance, are rooted in ethical concerns.

Washington, D.C., attorney Neal Friedman spoke of a British Columbia company that snapped up 9,000 domain names - the portion of a company's Web site or e-mail address that precedes the ".com" - at $100 a pop. The company offers to lease the names for $99 a year.

"I actually hope they lose their shirts," Mr. Friedman said. "I think it's despicable."

Discussion at the conference focused on such issues and whether current laws are adequate to handle them (some say "no") or whether laws specific to online environments are necessary (a larger number say "yes").

Some of the hot-button issues discussed:

PRIVACY. When symposium participant Kirk Bailey heard attorney panelists blithely discuss e-mail conversations with their clients, the data-security administrator for King County Medical Blue Shield strode to the microphone. Mr. Bailey cautioned against sending private information via Internet e-mail.

"The Internet is basically dirty public wire, from a technical viewpoint," Mr. Bailey said later. "No e-mail should be sent unless it's conceived like a postcard; anybody can read it."

HACKERS. Panelist Scott Charney, chief of the Department of Justice's computer-crime unit, said the rate of computer crimes has mirrored growth of the Internet. From 1991 to 1995, there was a 500 percent growth in the number of Internet hosts - computers with discreet "addresses." Security breaches reported to the Computer Emergency Response Team at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh have increased 498 percent.

The Department of Justice is not immune; its Web site was recently targeted by a hacker.

Most computer crimes go undetected and unreported, said Mr. Charney, who has written legislation to dramatically strengthen the current Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT. In one corner, you have copyright owners who want a reasonable expectation of protection and payment for their material. In the other corner, you have the Internet-is-free folks who want to post, forward and download copyrighted documents with impunity.

Panelist Richard Black, an attorney with Seattle intellectual-property law firm Christensen, O'Connor, Johnson & Kindness, predicted that the Internet-is-free people would lose.

"They will lose because information is not free," Mr. Black said. "This is the same thing that happened about 20 years ago, in connection with software when PC software was very young, very new. A lot of people envisioned these same sort of ... sentiments, that it all be shareware and freeware, and some people were even arguing in those days it was unethical to sell software. We know what's happened to them; they got crushed by the economic reality."

At last year's session, participants ended up in two loose camps, said panelist Rex Hughes, an Internet analyst and symposium program manager. The first group argued that existing laws regarding privacy, copyright infringement, system trespassers and defamation can be stretched to fit the online world.

The second camp contended that the Internet is unique and, therefore, old laws could not apply.

This year, many agreed that new laws specifically tailored to the Internet, its millions of users and its trouble spots are needed.

Robert Cumbow, symposium co-chairman, espouses a middle-of-the-road view that certain existing laws - such as those that govern defamation - are sufficient. And Mr. Cumbow, an associate at the Perkins, Coie law firm in Seattle, is also leery of legislators writing bad laws.

Conference co-chairman David Skover, a Seattle University law professor, envisions self-regulation at the hands of commercial interests collaborating and establishing effective remedies.

That contrasts sharply with the views of Charles Marson, a San Francisco attorney, former legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union and symposium panelist.

"To ask politicians to keep their hands off a phenomenon like the Internet," Mr. Marson wrote in conference documents, "is like asking them to reject campaign contributions. We can expect, therefore, that the closing years of the 20th century will produce a confused and dangerous jumble of new legal rules."

But no sweeping federal legislative changes are expected at the close of this year. Little action, in fact, is predicted until the close of the election season. Then, tinkering with legislation regarding encryption and copyright is expected to continue in earnest.