Alum Starts Internet Free Speech Website

To Wendy M. Seltzer ’96 the “scare tactics” being used by corporations on the Internet are the cyber-equivalent of book burnings from the Middle Ages—both limit free speech.

Seltzer, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and a team of legal scholars at the Internet clinics of Stanford University, the University of California-Berkeley and University of San Francisco, have started a website to counteract what they call the “chilling effects” of such scare tactics on free speech in cyberspace.

The site,, which officially launched last week, seeks to educate the general public about their rights on the World Wide Web as well as monitor trends that affect free speech on the Internet, Seltzer says. The new site received over a million hits in its first two days, according to Diane Cabell, an instructor at the Berkman Center.

A common tactic Seltzer sees are “cease and desist” letters companies send out to users they say are violating copyright or trademark laws. Seltzer says that although some recipients are not in violation of the law, many choose to shut down the disputed site rather than face possible legal action.

Under Seltzer’s new program, Internet users who receive letters threatening legal action will be able to submit those letters to the site on-line and the letters will be analyzed by a team of law students from the four universities involved.


Seltzer says many of the disputes over copyright on the Internet revolve around a complicated clause in the law governing “fair use.”

U.S. law includes a clause entitled “fair use,” which allows the use of copyrighted material “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting...scholarship, or research.” Under that wording, individual Internet users should be free to use such material in a parody or a criticism of a movie or a company without fear of legal backlash, Seltzer says.

According to Cabell, the site wants to explain to consumers how the law applies to their site so they are free to exercise the total range of their right to free speech without fear or misunderstading surrounding a cease and desist letter, Cabell explains.

“Most cease and desist letters do curtail free speech because the person who receives it is not able to make an informed choice about the contents of the letter,” Cabell says.

A common source of letters are sites with addresses like Under United States law, use of a trademark is restricted if there is a possibilty for consumer confusion about the source of the site or the connection to the company.

“Consumers are unlikely to be confused by walmartsucks,” Seltzer says.

Such a use of the trademarked name falls under the protection of the the “fair use” clause, but not all users may understand this clause or even know of its existence, and may shut down a site that is within the protection of free speech.

Seltzer says one of the first priorities for the new site is to figure out how many of the cease and desist letters are valid.

As one example, Seltzer cites the case of Aaron Koller ’03 from late last year. The Winthrop House reisdent received a cease and desist letter from Motion Picture Associations through his Allston Burr senior tutor after he had downloaded an episode of the Simpsons.

Koller has since been in contact with Chilling Effects, submitting his letter to the team of law students who analyze and explain letters for users, and his letter will be posted on the site for reference.

“I was kind of worried what might be behind the letter,” Koller says.

He promptly deleted the episode from his computer and no further legal action has been pursued. Chilling Effects was unable to make a final ruling on the Koller’s action since cases debating the legality of file sharing programs, like the one that he used to get the episode, are still pending in court.

But his letter will be one of the many made available on the new website as a reference for other users.