April 15, 2003
Copyright and Free Speech

Copyright protection and free speech collided again this past weekend when a Georgia state court issued a temporary restraining order (pdf) that prevented two students from presenting information on how to break into and modify a university electronic transactions system at Interz0ne II, a Georgia security and hackers' conference held in Atlanta.

News.com reports that Blackboard Inc., a Washington D.C.-based education software company maker of the Blackboard Transaction System, first sent a cease and desist letter to the organizers of the conference and then turned to a state judge to block the presentation, "Campuswide System Vulnerabilities Update" (full PPT here of 9/02 presentation at Interz0ne I) by co-panelists Georgia Institute of Technology's Billy Hoffman (aka Acidus) and University of Alabama's Virgil Griffith.

The company, in its full complaint (pdf) told the judge that one of the two students physically broken into a networked, switched device, figuring out a way to mimic Blackboard's technology. Hoffman wrote on his website, which now simply links to Interz0ne.com, "if Blackboard wouldn't make their system more secure, or tell people how to secure it, I'll simply make compatible ones myself and give them away." (See also the 2600 mirror of the Acidus site.)

While conference organizers contend that the students' free speech rights were abridged, Blackboard argues that the information gained illegally would harm the company's commercial interests and those of its clients. The state judge agreed, at least temporarily, with the company's claim that because the alleged act would be illegal under the federal and state laws, publication of the resulting information should be blocked. Michael Stanton, a Blackboard spokesman, said "The temporary restraining order pointed out that the irreparable injury to Blackboard, our intellectual property rights and clients far outweighed the commercial speech rights of the individuals in question." Although as Ed Felten points out, the documents don't actually mention the free speech issues and it doesn't appear that the judge considered it when issuing the temporary restraining order.

A hearing on a permanent injunction against publication or presentation of the work will be held in Georgia state court Wednesday.

Posted by Valentina Pasquali at April 15, 2003 05:57 PM | TrackBack

Has anyone pointed out to the Judge that much of the research in the presentation at Interz0ne II on the Blackboard system appears to have already shared publically at Interz0ne I? Or that Blackboard might be more liable to their customers for security problems if they just suppress the research verses dealing with the problems directly?

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