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Are firms liable for employee 'Net postings?

Title: Are firms liable for employee 'Net postings?
Date: Monday, 20 February 1995
Publisher: Network World
Author: Adam Gaffin
Main source:

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The Church of Scientology last week filed suit in a bitter dispute over Internet postings that raises questions about the responsibility of network managers for policing their end users.

The church sued former member Dennis Erlich, a North Hollywood, Calif., bulletin board system (BBS), and Internet provider Netcom On-Line Services, Inc. for copyright violations.

The church alleges that Erlich used the bulletin board, which relies on Netcom for Usenet connectivity, to post copyrighted church teachings. The church is seeking monetary damages and an end to his postings; Erlich denies the charges.

While this is not the first run-in between the church and on-line detractors, the fact that Netcom and BBS operator Tom Klemesrud were dragged into the lawsuit illustrates that corporate managers have to exercise caution when connecting end users to the 'Net. Network staffers, as well as their employers, could be held liable for postings they had nothing to do with, said Edward Cavazos, a lawyer who specializes in Internet issues with the Houston firm of Andrews and Kurth, LLP.

The disclaimers that many Usenet posters put at the bottom of their messages are no longer enough. "We all grew up feeling what we were doing [on the 'Net] had nothing to do with the legal system in the real world," he said. "The Internet is growing up."

At Chicago-based Playboy Enterprises, Inc., employees are given free rein of Usenet. But they are urged to show restraint in public postings or to indicate they are speaking for themselves, not the company, said Tom Ryan, a graphics technology specialist who helped connect the company to the 'Net.

"We encourage people to use discretion" and to realize that even with a disclaimer, people may still consider any postings to represent Playboy, Ryan said.


In January, a church attorney posted in a conference used by Usenet system administrators a demand that they stop carrying alt. religion.scientology because of alleged copyright violations. Few, if any, system administrators complied. Around the same time, somebody attempted to ''cancel," or delete, Usenet messages critical of the church.

Shari Steele, attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the case looks more like harassment of critics than a copyright case. She said the suits against Klemesrud's Clearwood Data Services — operator of the BBS used by Erlich — and Netcom, are particularly troublesome because neither is charged with uploading any potentially copyrighted material.

But Helena Kobrin, attorney for the church, said the issue is simply one of copyright infringement. "It is not about freedom of speech or about religious disputes," she said in a message posted on Usenet, ironically from Netcom. "My clients are ardent supporters of the First Amendment and are extremely active in defending it."

Hey, who said you could read this?

A sampling of corporate Usenet access policies:

* Employees are given unlimited usenet access via Serial Line Internet Protocol (SLIP) or telnet accounts on public access servers.

* Company establishes Usenet gateway and limits incoming newsgroups to certain broad categories, such as access to comp. groups but not alt. groups.

* Employees have to ask for access to specific newsgroups. which administrators then monitor.