Internet extends legal reach of national governments

Sunday, July 21, 2002

NEW YORK -- Police in Italy didn't care that five Web sites they deemed blasphemous and thus illegal were located in the United States, where First Amendment protections apply.

The police shut them down anyway in early July, simply by sitting down at the alleged offender's Rome computer.

Talk about the long arm of the law.

Under pressure from their citizens, governments around the world are increasingly abandoning the hands-off attitude they initially had toward the Internet. They are now applying their laws far beyond their borders -- thanks to the borderless medium.

Put another way, foreign citizens and businesses are now being subjected to copyright, speech, consumer protection and other laws enacted by governments in countries where they've had no voice.

Though these international tensions existed long before the Net, the global network's growth exacerbated them.

In Italy, two men are under investigation for allegedly running sites that combined pornographic pictures with offensive statements about the Madonna. Officials say they were weighing blasphemy, computer fraud and other charges that could result in fines and up to three years in prison.

Though the sites were hosted by U.S. companies, including Blue Gravity Communications Inc. of Pennsauken, N.J., authorities in Italy used a suspect's computer and password to reach across the ocean and replace the offending images with the insignia of the special police unit that tracked him down.

Blue Gravity's chief executive, Tom Krwawecz, said the company was never informed. And he believes U.S. laws -- not Italy's -- ought to apply.

"That's where the content is actually located, regardless of who's looking at it and where it's being looked at," Krwawecz said. "How are we to know what the laws of another country might be?"

No 'law of the Net'

David Farber, the moderator of a popular online mailing list on technology with recipients all over the globe, envisions a time when he'll have to cut back on his postings for fear of lawsuits elsewhere.

Many countries do not value free speech the way the United States does, nor do they give speakers as much leeway in defending libel lawsuits. So mailing list mavens like Farber need to be concerned about whether items they post might violate a law somewhere.

It's not just speech that's at issue. A privacy law recently passed by the European Parliament requires companies anywhere in the world to obtain permission before sending marketing e-mail to Europeans.

The European Commission's Marian Grubben acknowledges that the new law complicates national boundaries and could be hard to enforce. But she said doing nothing isn't a choice, given the amount of junk e-mail her citizens receive.

"We could probably use something that I would call the law of the Net, but if it's anything like the law of the sea, it took 20 years to get that sorted out," said Vinton Cerf, one of the Net's early developers.

Until then, there's a risk that individuals and businesses -- particularly multinationals -- may feel obliged to curtail speech and other online activities.

The United States, too, is guilty of trying to extend its reach.

A U.S. copyright law was used to jail a Russian programmer in California for writing software that was legal in his country. He was later freed, but charges remain against his Russian employer.

And because a large part of Internet traffic goes through the United States -- even if both sender and recipient live elsewhere -- last fall's anti-terrorism bill lets the Justice Department prosecute foreign hackers when they attack computers anywhere in the world.

Of course, enforcement is another matter. In the case of the Russian programmer, authorities had to wait for him to attend a conference in Las Vegas before moving to arrest him.

Motohiro Tsuchiya, professor at the International University of Japan's Center for Global Communications, believes multinational businesses will ultimately pressure governments to move toward uniformity -- through treaties and other cooperative arrangements.

But at what cost?

The current patchwork "does make things more complicated," said Milton Mueller, a professor at Syracuse University who studies Internet governance. "But it's also much more responsive to variation in human and economic conditions around the world."

Associated Press writer Emanuele Piano in Rome contributed to the report.

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