Junk e-mail `is not free speech'
By Kurt Kleiner Washington DC A COURT ruling that America Online, the world’s biggest Internet service provider, can legally block out electronic junk mail will free its members from unwanted messages dropping into their e-mail boxes. But the ruling has raised fears that the Net’s tradition of free speech is under threat. Earlier this month, a Philadelphia court ruled that American Online (AOL) can block unsolicited mail addressed to its 7 million customers. The trouble started when AOL, reacting to customer complaints, began blocking e-mail from Cyber Promotions, a Philadelphia company that sends out advertisements over the Internet. Its customers have included companies selling health aids, weight loss plans and telephone sex services. In March, Cyber Promotions sued AOL, claiming the block on its e-mail was a restriction of the company’s right of free speech, guaranteed under the US constitution. AOL said that the blocking was a customer service. “Junk e-mail is the number one complaint from our members,” says AOL chief executive Steve Cases. Lawsuits alleging restriction of the right to free speech are usually only taken out against government agencies. But Cyber Promotions argued that AOL has so much control over what its customers see online that the company was taking on the role of government. The court rejected that argument, saying that AOL customers wanting to gain access to Cyber Promotions’ material can connect to a Web site carrying the advertisements, or simply use another online service provider. But David Banisar, a lawyer for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington DC, fears that the court decision might limit legitimate free speech on the Net. “If the entire Internet is a large collection of small privately owned spaces, where is the public space? Where is the equivalent of Hyde Park?