View Full Version : Email, Privacy, and `small print'

Herman J. Woltring
04-29-1991, 09:24 PM
Dear list readers,

Considering yesterday's issue of the RISKS-Forum Digest (volume 11, No. 56)
on breach of privacy, email censoring, and improper `small print' in contract
clauses, I am reposting part of my note of last February on public access to
email facilities.

RISKS 11(56) can be retrieved by anonymous FTP from CRVAX.SRI.COM [login:
anonymous, password: your user_id, cd RISKS:, get risks-11.56,
bye]; if you do not have FTP facilities, send a one-line request HELP to

> Date: Sat, 23 Feb 91 11:10:00 N
> Sender: Biomechanics and Movement Science listserver
> From: Herman J. Woltring"
> Subject: Public access to Internet etc.
> Dear Biomch-L readers,
> While email communication is usually available for free to account holders
> on EARN/BITNET, Internet, etc., (log-on time, disk usage, paper output
> typically being charged), it may be useful to mention that email access is
> also becoming increasingly available through PC and modem facilities by
> telephone [...; typically, number of transmitted bytes and/or logon time
> being charged -- HJW].
> Interestingly, one such service (PRODIGY) has been accused of censoring
> email to and from its subscribers. Whether this allegation is true or
> not, such issues do raise concern about freedom of opinion, free access
> to information, and similar fundamental rights in a networking context,
> especially if (with some justification, perhaps) `network harrassment' is
> used as an argument to counter network `flaming'. As said at a previous
> occasion: "verba volent, scripta manent" ...

The allegations in RISKS 11(56) against Prodigy and GEnie, two commercial
email service providers in North America, warrant considering the question
whether it is about time that Postal legislation (i.e., postal services are
not entitled to refuse, (unnecessarily) delay, read, or censor your mail,
or to divert it from its destination without a proper court order) shall
also apply to electronic mail, whether through private or public channels.

I do not propose to have this topic as a debate on this list; however, I
think that a pointer to the relevant debate is not out of place even on a
discussion list like ours, and I shall be happy to consider any comments
sent to me privately. I might mention in this respect that the Dutch
legislative is currently considering a Computer Crime Bill in which unautho-
rized access to computers, e.g., by networking, is considered a felony, and
that some of the proposals remind more of the U.K.'s Official Secrets Act than
of the U.S.A.'s Freedom of Information Act. One heavily debated topic is to
what extent computer trespassing will be declared a criminal offence if no
appropriate security is provided by system management. If not, private (and
public) interests can afford to neglect system security and yet call upon
public authorities for free to protect their interests once they observe that
their sloppyness has been `used'. This is unusual in Civil Law as any
insurance company will be happy to point out, and not very compatible with
the classical view that Criminal Law is the Ultimate Resort, `when all else

Herman J. Woltring, Biomch-L co-moderator & (former) member,
Study-committees on s/w & chips protection / Computer crime,
Netherlands Society for Computers and Law