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A Utah District Court ruling may have big ramifications on whether free speech can cross the line over to identity theft.

The case, which involves a media hoax against a major U.S. company by an environmental group, may lean on what the definition of a “prank” is – and whether it can actually be described as identity theft.

The lawsuit stems from a group of hackers who built a fake Web site and slapped Koch Industries name on it, and rolled it out to the public on December 10, 2010. The privately held company is one of the world’s largest provider of fertilizers and chemicals, and is frequently criticized by climate change advocates for its funding of climate change skeptic groups.

One environmental group – the Youth for Climate Truth – has been linked to the fake Web site, which included the same Web address and the same home page of Koch Industries. In addition, the fake site posted some pro-climate change statements, and claimed that the company would soon begin funding pro-climate change environmental groups.

But Koch attorneys want the names of the individuals at the YCT, so they can prosecute them, potentially under identity theft and fraud laws. Specifically, Koch says that individuals in the YCT have violated federal laws on trademarks, cyber squatting, unfair competition and violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

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In early January, a U.S. District Court judge gave Koch the green light to speed up the process of getting the names of those individuals purported to be behind the Web site hoax.

In its defense, a spokesman for the Youth for Climate Truth says that individuals in the group are protected by free speech laws, and in no way engaged in any identity fraud or computer fraud.

“What Koch needs to understand is people have a First Amendment right to criticize people on the Internet – and that includes powerful corporations and government,” Deepak Gupta, an attorney for Public Citizen, told the Associated Press on January 27, 2010. “You can’t simply hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit to try to unmask your political critics because we have a First Amendment in this country. It allows you to speak out, and it allows you to speak out anonymously.”

For its part, Koch said the issue wasn’t about free speech – but about the theft of intellectual property. “This is not a lawsuit about freedom of speech. We believe in a vigorous political debate,” the company said in a statement. “We are not seeking in any way to silence our critics,” Koch said in a statement Thursday. “This lawsuit was filed because the integrity of our computer systems and our valuable intellectual property was compromised and used without permission, in violation of … federal law.”

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To prove its case, Koch will need to bring those anonymous Youth for Climate Change members they hold responsible for the fake Web site out into broad daylight.

If, and when the company does, the country may get a good lesson in what constitutes a hoax – and what constitutes identity fraud.

Image by RealtorKimWood, via Flickr

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  • http://www.identitytheftprotection.org/ Edward

    Identity thieves doesn’t choose a place where to commit fraud. Anywhere you are, you have to be careful. Even if you’re at an airport, you must still secure your identity against them.

  • Arkhaik Deliberately Misspelled

    What precisely is meant by the term ‘hacker’? the title “Youth for Climate Change” implies young people, and unless they can actually program they should not be classified as ‘hackers’ and even if they can, they would be classified as ‘Phishers’.

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