Judge tosses lawsuit seeking probe of filtering software

A federal judge on April 9 threw out a lawsuit that challenged the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act by seeking permission for a Harvard student to probe internet filtering software used in schools and public libraries. The lawsuit was brought last summer by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of Ben Edelman, a Harvard Law School student who argued that such software—which is required of schools and libraries that receive federal technology funding—often blocks far more than pornography and other objectionable sites.

Edelman had asked Seattle-based filtering company N2H2 Inc. for a list of sites its software blocks, but was rebuffed. He then went to court to seek permission to reverse-engineer N2H2’s product, saying he needed court permission because the controversial 1998 law forbids the dissemination of information that could be used to bypass copyright-protection schemes.

“The reason we filed the suit the way we did, seeking declaratory judgment, is that I simply cannot do this research without a court telling me it’s permissible,” Edelman said after a court hearing last week. “They could seize whatever assets I have if I were later found to have infringed on their rights.”

N2H2 claimed that providing such information to Edelman would compromise trade secrets, and that Edelman had no legal standing to be granted such permission because there was no imminent threat he would be sued.

U.S. District Judge Richard Stearns agreed, writing in a ruling issued April 9 that “there is no plausibly protected constitutional interest that Edelman can assert that outweighs N2H2’s right to protect its copyrighted material from an invasive and destructive trespass.”

Chris Hansen, the ACLU attorney who argued the case, said the ACLU was discussing options for other ways to challenge the law. Edelman did not immediately respond to a reporter’s eMail message.

N2H2 spokesman David Burt said the company was pleased with the ruling.

“We think that researchers and other people who want to learn about filters already have means for doing that,” Burt said. “I think it’s pretty clear that people who want to analyze and criticize filters can use tools that do not involve decryption.”


Edelman v. N2H2: Case Summary & Documents (Edelman’s site)

American Civil Liberties Union

N2H2 Inc.

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