A Latvian IT company has threatened a school student with legal action over his web browser extension for the "E-Class" school management system. It's sparked a heated public debate.
Aleksejs Popovs is among tens of thousands of Latvian school students who not only log on to their favorite social networking sites, but also use the E-Class school management system nearly every day.
E-Class – or e-klase, as it is known in Latvia - is an online portal used by around 700 of the country's 800 schools. Its aim is to lighten the workload for teachers and enables parents to track their child's progress at school.
It's been three years since 15-year-old Popovs, a tenth-grade student at a prestigious school in Riga, first used the E-Class to find out his grades.
“All my classmates use E-Class and we have all noticed the site is not as convenient as it could be,” says Popovs. The site, he adds, loads quite slowly because there are lots of photos, advertisements and news articles that appear.
“What concerns me and my schoolmates the most is not the ads, but the fact that the E-Class register always opens in a new pop-up window,” he complains.
“And in 2014, when we have modern browsers which allow you to open as many tabs as you want, well, it's just absurd! It's really an inconvenience.”
This was the reason why Popovs, a top-grade information science student, decided to develop his extension “Skaista klase” or “Beautiful Class” for the Chrome web browser.
At the end of last year his extension was made available to everybody free of charge on the Chrome Web Store.
An offer one can't refuse
“Chrome extensions give you the possibility to change the style of a website,” says Popovs. He used the option to adjust the way E-Class looks. “I have also taken away those parts of the site which I think are unnecessary. And using the Java Script programming language, I removed the option that E-Class opens in a pop-up window.”
Just two days later Popovs received an email from “The Digital Economy Development Centre” or DEAC. The privately run Riga-based IT outsourcing service provider owns and manages E-Class. The DEAC demanded the teenager remove the extension from the online store, and threatened legal action.
“The extension removes all the articles on the site, and all the functionality, which enables users to seek help, for instance, if they lose their password,” says Janis Kagis from the DEAC. “All it leaves is a bare login window.” He says the extension fakes the content of the site and is a breach of copyright.
DEAC sent a lawyer to Popovs' home and it worked. The teenager removed the extension from the Google Store. More than 80 people had already downloaded his version of "Beautiful Class." But Popovs still believes he did not break any laws.
The incident provoked a storm of outrage on social media and that's where Matiss Treinis, a 22-year-old computer programmer, learned about the incident. He's among Popovs's supporters.
“We are already talking about a precedent here,” says Treinis. “A company, in this case the DEAC, have decided they will tell people what they can and can't do on their personal computers; what they can watch and what they can't watch.” He adds that he finds it absolutely unacceptable and accuses the DEAC of acting like a bully.
Treinis's own IT company has adopted Popovs's extension of Beautiful class and re-published it on the Chrome web store.
Madars Virza, a PhD student in computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that there is an extension called "Ad Block plus" and it blocks ads on the Internet and changes the content of websites in a similar way.
“The extension is being used by millions of people around the world and I believe that there are around 100,000 users in Latvia,” says Virza. “Have the developers of the extension ever been called? Of course not, because it's all legitimate.”
Lack of landmark ruling?
Ilmars Poikans, a researcher at the Institute of Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of Latvia, explains that everyone should be entitled to change the way information is displayed on their browsers. But this particular case highlights the need for a non-government organisation to defend digital rights in Latvia.
“Look at the ‘Electronic Frontier Foundation' in the United States, which defends people's rights in the digital world,” says Poikans. “I think that if we had such an NGO in Latvia, then it would defend the teenager.” He adds that there are no such powerful NGOs working in this area within Latvia and that's what is needed.
But Janis Kagis from the DEAC is convinced Latvian teenagers lack education about the Internet and the ramifications for its misuse. “Young people are absolutely nihilistic towards legal issues on the Internet,” says Kagis. He adds a court decision in a case such as this would serve as a good precedent.
Latvia's Data State Inspectorate is investigating the DEAC to find out whether it breached any data privacy laws by handing over the teenager's personal information - Popovs' personal ID number and home address - to their lawyers. It may take up to four months until the investigation's results will be announced.
Popovs hopes that his experience will prompt the government and Latvian tech companies to think about - and reassess - current copyright and data protection laws.