Features

E-frontier justice

National | Michigan courtrooms go online, e-mail users sue spammers, and the CIA looks for a few good startups

Issue: "Enron's collapse," Jan. 26, 2002

Ready for the virtual lawsuit?
America's first cybercourt, in which lawyers will be able to file briefs online and make court appearances by teleconference, is set to open in Michigan this fall. The cybercourt will specialize in civil cases between companies. Backers hope the pilot project will reduce court costs and more quickly bring disputes to trial. Both sides in a lawsuit must agree to use the cybercourt, which has no jury and will hear cases in which $25,000 or more is in dispute. Judges chosen by the Michigan Supreme Court from the district or circuit court bench will govern the cybercourt for three-year terms. Why a cybercourt? Michigan officials hope their "rocket docket" will make the state look attractive to high-tech companies as an alternative to Silicon Valley. In signing the bill, Gov. John Engler claimed, "I believe it will make Michigan uniquely attractive for the New Economy businesses the same way the State of Delaware has had an advantage for incorporation of major public companies." Gov. Engler wants the cybercourt up and running by October, with the state court administrator reporting on its progress in two years. Critics argue that the idea could encourage more lawsuits. If litigation is quicker and easier, it may be more tempting. So problems that people would otherwise solve by negotiation and conciliation may fall into the hands of trial lawyers. Attacking spam
Computer consultant Martin Palmer takes junk e-mail seriously, so seriously that he sues the companies that send the unwanted messages. So far he's collected $20,000 after expenses from 42 cases filed under Washington state's anti-spam law. Call it a drop in the bucket, but a number of irate Internet users have taken spammers to court in an effort to stem the tide of porn, scams, and sales pitches that flood their inboxes. Nineteen states have laws specifically regulating junk e-mail, typically barring marketers from using false message headers and forcing them to allow users to opt out of future mailings. Violators face civil lawsuits, but the work involved for plaintiffs can be difficult and unrewarding. Mr. Palmer has had to hire collection agencies to receive his judgments. In one case, computer scientist Ellen Spertus sued Kozmo.com under California's 1998 anti-spam law-and collected only $4.26. Yet she called it a moral victory. "Once in a while something comes across that you have to take a stand on," she said. Big Internet providers like Earthlink and America Online have more resources and more success. In recent years, such companies have collected millions in settlements and judgments against purveyors of spam under trespass, computer fraud, and other laws. Even so, anti-spam activists say state laws are too weak to be effective and the amount of junk mail keeps growing anyway. Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters, compares the suits to "mopping up an oil spill with a toothbrush." Mainstream marketers complain that regulation undermines their right to perform legitimate business. Spook startups
Private investment funds for new high-tech ventures may have dried up, but the CIA is still looking for a few good startups. The agency's venture capital wing, In-Q-Tel, looks to help startups whose products will aid its agents, and its mission has become more urgent since Sept. 11. Hundreds of companies have come calling, looking for money to finance obscure products. One big In-Q-Tel interest is what techies call "unstructured data," useful information that is scattered through masses of documents, e-mails, and databases. Search engines and anything else that can speed up research help the agency process data faster. Also, one of In-Q-Tel's most prominent investments is in the field of online anonymity. A company called SafeWeb ran a service that let Web surfers read pages without potential censors in government or businesses seeing them. For the CIA, it meant that agents could look for pages without being detected in server logs. A free, public version shut down last year, but a commercial service is still in the works. In-Q-Tel runs with a budget of around $30 million per year plus any profits from its investments. (The "Q" in the name refers to James Bond's gadget guru.) The firm's Web page claims it is an "independent, 501(c) 3 organization" with a "unique relationship with the CIA." So far, the outfit has bought technology from about two dozen companies and taken equity stakes in at least 13.

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