British authorities trying to regain control of a report let loose on the Internet last week have reached across the globe to force a Canadian man to take the report -- along with any links to it -- off his Web site.
Try as it may, the Nottinghamshire County council, which owns the copyright on the report in question, probably will never be able to completely cleanse the Net of the offending document, simply because the Net is too big, too disparate, and ever-changing.
The case, however, is sure to add fuel to the raging debate about when it's OK for sites to link.
The report in question was written in Nottinghamshire county. It details an investigation into a huge child abuse scandal involving sexual, physical, and Satanic ritual abuse. The report has never been legally released and in fact was banned.
But three British journalists who covered the case thought the report, a copy of which was leaked to them, was important enough to merit breaking the law. They used the Internet and its capabilities for instantaneous publishing and republishing to disseminate the text of the report far and wide.
Since then, the focus of the case, at least for Netizens, has shifted from the content of the report and toward the British government's attempts to weed the Net of the report and all links to it.
The journalists face legal penalties, including possible jail time, for violating the ban. Britain's high court issued an injunction against the journalists, ordering them to take the report and links to it off their site. They complied.
Now the government appears to be going after others who either have picked up the report or who are linking to it.
Jeremy Freeman, a 21-year-old Canadian student and network engineer, said he saw the story about the report and decided to do his part as cyberlibertarian. "I've always been a big advocate of freedom of speech on the Net", he said. So he mirrored the report on his site and then registered the page with search engines.
Next thing he knew, the Nottinghamshire County Council sent him email telling him to take the report down or face court action.
Freeman said he thought, that as a Canadian, he'd be immune to prosecution. But even if he had a good case he said he couldn't afford to fight the case.
"I'm not going to get myself in trouble for this", he said. "This was scaring me. I don't know if they were blowing smoke or not but I don't have the money, time, or resources to go to court."
So Freeman took the site down and instead, put up a link to another mirror site, figuring a link had to be OK since links are the foundation of the entire Web.
Another email came from someone identifying himself as C.P. McKay, County Solicitor. This one was equally threatening: "Unless the link is removed forthwith the Nottinghamshire County Council will issue Court Proceedings as stated in my letter of 6th June, 1997, without further notice to you."
Freeman details the entire ordeal in a complete report on his site.
While Freeman was shocked, he also was scared. He complied with the second "request" as well.
"I find it totally surprising that they would call a link an infringement on copyright", he said. "I didn't think it was causing any problems." One thing is very clear, Freeman said: "They're really anxious to get this report off the Net."
Yaman Akdeniz, head of the United Kingdom cyberliberties group Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties said this case, along with others, shows the British government's lack of understanding of the Net. He added that it shows that they don't understand that the even if they wanted to, it would be nearly impossible to completely regulate the Net.
"The new technology is always ahead of the existing laws, and also the Internet's multinational environment makes it difficult to enforce national legislation", he said. "Attempts to regulate or restrain speech on the Internet have generally failed in the last few years. The U.S. attempts to regulate indecency on the Internet or the German attempts to limit access to hate speech... the genie is already out of the bottle."