High Technology and the Law
A Legal Perspective on the Open Systems Industry
The Law and the Net
A commonsense approach to the use of the Internet can prevent many legal
problems before they start.
For its own safety, an employer should be aware of how its employees
are using its systems and the Internet.
By Jonathan Wallace
When a company connects to the Internet, it gives its employees an opportunity
to participate in an exciting new communications medium that can make them
more productive. The company also acquires a confusing bundle of legal rights
and obligations, which it may not understand and which the courts will be
clarifying for years to come. For example, the Internet has been called
the first true "two-way" communications medium; everyone who uses
it has the opportunity to be both a publisher and a distributor of information.
It is important to understand these two roles and the differences between
If you create content and put it on the Internet, you are a publisher. However,
if you use your Internet server to store or republish information created
by others, you are considered a distributor of information, similar to a
bookstore. Publishers are required by the law to understand and take responsibility
for the material they publish. Thus, if it contains "illegal"
information--a libelous statement, copyrighted material used without permission
or obscenity--the publisher will be held liable. On the other hand, a distributor
is not required to read and know the contents of everything it distributes
(a bookstore owner cannot read every book in the store). Therefore, a distributor
is responsible only for distributing information that it knows is illegal.
The bookstore analogy was applied to the online world by a trend-setting
case a few years ago called Cubby v. CompuServe, where a federal judge in
New York held that CompuServe was not liable for a false statement a user
made about Cubby on one of its forums. The Church of Scientology (COS) took
this precedent to heart. When it brings one of its numerous lawsuits in
pursuit of copied church documents on the Net, COS will first put an Internet
service provider (ISP) on notice that a user is engaging in copyright violations.
If the ISP declines to do anything, COS sues the ISP along with the infringing
user, claiming that the ISP contributed to the violation.
In another recent copyright misunderstanding, an individual operating a
Web site pertaining to voice transmission over the Net posted a software
driver that a user had e-mailed to him. The driver worked with a particular
commercial voice product, and its owner sued the Web site operator for copyright
infringement. He took the offending software offline and informed the few
users who had downloaded it that it was an illegal copy, but the lawsuit
is still pending.
Another area of potential liability for employers is indecency, under the
new Communications Decency Act (discussed here in August 1995). While this
law is extremely vague and its constitutionality is being litigated, employers
should watch developments carefully. The act extends the Cubby precedent
to indecent material, meaning that if a company becomes aware that its computers
are being used to distribute material that depicts or describes sexual acts
or organs, it may suffer criminal liability or fines.
In the Monitor of the Beholder
The graphical World Wide Web can also create interemployee problems that
become the company's headache. The constant presence of sexual images on
an employee's screen can add up to sexual harassment of another employee
who objects to it; in this sense, the picture on the screen is no different
than an offensive poster on a wall.
For its own safety, an employer should be aware of how its employees are
using its systems and the Internet. Most employees are honest and reliable
but a renegade--like the person who used a laboratory computer to store
large amounts of pornography--makes life difficult for everyone. A clearly
written company policy on use of the Internet will go a long way toward
avoiding problems. Start by asking yourself what your employees really need
the Internet for, then define the policy accordingly. One company, which
gave Internet access to salespeople, wanted them to be able to look for
leads in Usenet newsgroups and on the Web. However, it didn't want the Net
to keep them off the phone during "prime time," so it published
a policy that Net use should occur only before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.
Technological solutions can also be of use. The same company placed two
technical restrictions on its salespeople. File Transfer Protocol was disabled,
because the salespeople did not need to receive or send files in order to
carry out their mission of obtaining sales leads. Also, several sites on
the Web that could interfere with productivity (while creating headaches
for the company) were blocked, such as those of Playboy and Penthouse
Some critics call this censorship or Big Brother-type intervention. But
use of the Net by employees is a privilege, not a right. Employees unhappy
with the company policy are free to maintain their own Internet accounts
from home, which they can use for whatever purposes they please. Despite
the high-tech trappings, company policies pertaining to the Net are similar
to those governing use of the telephone. You have a right to decide that
your employees should not make personal calls to Hawaii on your company
phone; you have a similar right to decide that they should not use your
computers and Net connection to publish, view or download material that
could get you into trouble.
Jonathan Wallace is vice president and general counsel
of Pencom Systems, Inc., in New York City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.