April 14, 2003 6:13 PM PDT

Court blocks security conference talk

A pair of students were blocked by a state court from presenting information at a Georgia security and hackers' conference on how to break into and modify a university electronic transactions system.

Washington D.C.-based education software company Blackboard successfully convinced a Georgia state court to block the students' presentation, which was scheduled to be given at the Interz0ne conference in Atlanta last weekend.

Blackboard argues that the restraining order blocked the publication of information gained illegally, which would have harmed the company's commercial interests and those of its clients. But conference organizers contend that the students' free speech rights were abridged.

"The temporary restraining order pointed out that the irreparable injury to Blackboard, our intellectual property rights and clients far outweighed the commercial speech rights of the individuals in question," said Michael Stanton, a Blackboard spokesman.

The company claims that the speech being blocked is commercial speech because the students were a "small competitor" to Blackboard. One of the students, Georgia Institute of Technology's Billy Hoffman, had threatened to give away code allowing any computer to emulate Blackboard's technology, the company claims.

Programmers' rights to publish or present information that would help break security technology has been an increasingly controversial issue over the past few years.

Much of the controversy has focused on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which contains a provision making it illegal to break technological security measures protecting copyrighted works, or even to publish information explaining how to do so.

The best-known case in this area had to do with Princeton University professor Edward Felten's attempts to present information on how to break protections created by the now-defunct Secure Digital Music Initiative. Felton said that SDMI attorneys told him he would be violating copyright law if he presented his work. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), a key part of the SDMI effort, denied making legal threats.

Although an initial cease and desist letter sent to the Interz0ne conference organizers hinted that the students may have violated the DMCA, the complaint that resulted in the temporary restraining order did not touch on that copyright law.

Instead, the restraining order was grounded largely in federal and Georgia state antihacking laws and a state trade secrets act.

The information set to be presented was gleaned after one of the students had physically broken into a network and switching device on his campus and subsequently figured out a way to mimic Blackboard's technology, the company told the judge. Because that alleged act would be illegal under the federal and state laws, publication of the resulting information should be blocked, it argued.

The state judge agreed, at least temporarily. A hearing on a permanent injunction against publication or presentation of the work will be held in Georgia state court Wednesday.

The students, Hoffman and the University of Alabama's Virgil Griffith, could not immediately be reached for comment.

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