New York, Georgia Internet laws shot down in June





NEW YORK, GEORGIA— Two recent court decisions have sent a message to states considering regulating content on the Internet — don’t try it.

At least that is what attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union are hoping after the simultaneous release of two rulings on Internet laws.

The decisions released June 20 by U.S. district courts in Georgia and New York concluded that states may be in over their heads if they try to regulate the limitless boundaries of the World Wide Web.

Georgia’s law, dubbed the “Internet Police Bill” by its opponents, prohibited using trademarked information, or using the Internet anonymously or under a pseudonym.

The law had been intended to eliminate fraud and copyright infringement on the Internet.

Georgia ACLU attorney Gerry Weber said the law was extremely vague and outlawed common aspects of the World Wide Web, such as linking to different pages. Those who violated the law could have faced up to one year in prison, he said.

Organizations including the Georgia ACLU, Electronic Frontiers Georgia and members of the Georgia House of Representatives challenged the law and won.

“We were obviously delighted,” Weber said. “We were fairly confident because the law was really poorly written. The law was drafted without much knowledge of the Internet, and the judges recognized that.”

In the court opinion for ACLU v. Miller, No. 96-cv-2475 (N.D. Ga. June 20, 1997), Judge Marvin Shoob wrote that Georgia “already has in place many less restrictive means to address fraud and misrepresentation.”

The court also recognized that the law could be misinterpreted to also cover communication such as by telephone or fax.

“The court has said that the Internet should be treated like any other form of communication,” Weber said.

ACLU Attorney Ann Beeson said that while the Georgia decision analyzed traditional First Amendment claims, the opinion by Judge Loretta Preska in New York’s ALA v. Pataki, No. 97 Civ. 0222 (S.D. N.Y. June 20, 1997), reached past free speech and into the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.

“[The Commerce Clause] is really going to be crucial to stop the stifling of the Internet,” Beeson said. “Traditionally, the Commerce Clause says states can’t regulate the commerce that occurs wholly outside of state borders.”

Beeson compared the Internet to railroads in the United States. Attempts to regulate them would be interfering with commerce between other states.

“The same is even more true of the Internet,” Beeson said.

While the borders may be vague on this new “information super-railroad,” Preska agreed that these laws could harm the free flow of commerce between states.

In her opinion, Preska wrote that “The Internet fits easily within the parameters of interests traditionally protected by the Commerce Clause. The New York Act represents an unconstitutional intrusion into interstate commerce.”

Preska went on to write that while the state does not have the authority to regulate Internet content, the United States may have the authority.

“The Commerce Clause ordains that only Congress can legislate in this area, subject of course, to whatever limitations other provisions of the Constitution (such as the First Amendment) may require,” Preska wrote.

Beeson agreed that only Congress, not the states, is in a position to regulate the Internet. Any states that try it themselves may be jumping in front of a moving train.


Fall 1997, reports