No free speech for animal rights Web sites
A British medical research firm hammers its online opponents, courtesy
of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

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By Katharine Mieszkowski

Aug. 31, 2001 | On Thursday, EnviroLink Network, a Pittsburgh-based
nonprofit Internet service provider, took offline two Web sites belonging
to the animal-rights activist group Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty. The
action came in response to a letter sent to the ISP earlier in the week by
Huntingdon Life Sciences, a British medical research firm. Citing the
Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), Huntingdon accused the
activists of violating its copyright. Although no charges have yet been filed,
under the terms of the DMCA, Envirolink was forced to remove the sites
to avoid potential legal liability. 

"It's very clear that Huntingdon Life Sciences just wants to shut them up,"
says Josh Knauer, the founder of Envirolink, which provides free Web
hosting to nonprofits. The animal-rights group's U.S. site has been
replaced with a single page explaining the conflict, while the main site
redirects to another ISP, allowing it to remain up for the moment. A notice
on the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty Web site taunts: "If you read this
HLS realize that you will never shut us up and we are as determined to
destroy you now as we were in November 1999 when this campaign began
and destroy you we will." Calls to legal counsel for Huntingdon Life
Sciences were not returned. 

Huntingdon's response is
hardly the first legal
skirmish between
Huntingdon and its critics;
most recently, the company
brought suit against Stop
Huntingdon Animal
Cruelty and other
animal-rights groups last
April using racketeering
law to fight the activist's
allegedly radical tactics,
including "violence,
intimidation and
harassment"; the law suit is
still pending. 

For several years, animal-rights activists have protested Huntingdon Life
Sciences, using tactics that include targeting individual investors and
companies that do business with the research lab, such as the Bank of New
York. One avenue of that pressure to divest has been through Web sites
such as BankofNYkills.com. 


Earlier this month, the Bank of New York notified
EnviroLink that it believed that the site violated its
copyrights. EnviroLink took down the site. "Under
the DMCA, a corporation contacts an ISP to let
them know that a site that they host is violating
their copyright," explains Knauer. "To protect
ourselves from threat of lawsuit, we have to shut
down the Web site, whether we think the claim is
valid or not." 

If the client whose Web site has been shut down
provides a counter-notification swearing under
penalty of perjury that it believes the site not to be
a copyright violation, then the site can be
reinstated by the ISP, such as Envirolink, but not
before 10 working days and no later than 14
working days have passed. In the case of BankofNYkills.com, Stop
Huntingdon Animal Cruelty has not yet sent a counter-notification. The
site remains down. 

Now, apparently, in the wake of the Bank of New York's successful action,
Huntingdon Life Sciences has followed the same course, sending
Envirolink a similar notification about the two Web sites removed today.
According to EnviroLink, Huntingdon's request did not specify individual
documents on the sites that allegedly violated their copyright, but objected
to the two sites in their entirety. Bill Strazza, an attorney in Union City,
N.J., representing Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, sees the use of the
DMCA to preemptively shut down the sites as an infringement on free
speech: "On simple notification they're (the ISP) compelled to take a site
down or risk liability. It puts hosts in a very difficult position which could
ultimately have a chilling effect on free speech." 

The 10-day window after the host receives a counter-notification before
the site goes back up is particularly troubling; why couldn't the ISP simply
restore the site right away and let the two parties work out the issue in
court? "There is still a 10 day stomping on the Constitution after a simple
notification," says Strazza. 

One reason for the window is that it gives the complainant time to get a
legal case together, if the choice is made to pursue legal action, explains
Jonathan Zittrain, co-director at the Beckman Center for Internet &
Society at Harvard Law School. "It's a ridiculous balancing act. It's clearly
Congress trying to strike a compromise: Once the cat is out of the bag on
the Internet, it's all over, on the other hand, this idea that prior restraint of
speech [is OK] because someone sent a letter sounds pretty bad." 

EnviroLink chose to cut off service for the two Stop Huntingdon Animal
Cruelty sites rather than risk liability for leaving them up. A costly lawsuit
could jeopardize the Web sites for 500 other organizations that Envirolink
hosts for free, according to Knauer. 
To Knauer, the host caught in the middle, the DMCA is a major threat, not
to his organization, but to the nonprofits it serves: "The DMCA is the next
major assault on nonprofit organizations, specifically those with few
resources. Can they defend themselves and how well can they defend
themselves? We have to make a stance in some way for free speech." 
Late Thursday afternoon, the conflict took a new turn; on the single
remaining page of the SHACUSA Web site, the activists posted a
call-to-arms to their supporters, urging them to contact Huntingdon's
attorney Michael Socarras, via phone and e-mail. The call to action was
apparently heeded: During the afternoon, Socarras' voicemail box was full,
and he didn't return calls requesting comment about the dispute left with
his assistant. Shortly afterwards, EnviroLink received a letter from the
attorney accusing the site of using the ISP to initiate "a campaign of
personal harassment and invasion of privacy directed against me" and
requesting "that you immediately take all necessary steps to end that
misuse of your hosting services." 

Knauer said the ISP saw no reason to heed the request: "We see no legal
precedent that would compel us to take action at this time," adding, "It's
clear that Huntingdon Life Sciences is not going to be happy until SHAC is
completely silenced."