Taming the 'Wild West' of the Global Internet

Tough legal issues and exploding technology challenge regulators trying to achieve order and prevent abuses

When it comes to money-laundering, drug kingpins have one thing going against them, says Stephen Kroll. A large amount of cash ''is hard to hide.''

Like an elephant, ''it tends to attract attention,'' says Mr. Kroll, an official with the United States Treasury Department.

But with the rise of commerce over the Internet, ''that is changing,'' he says.

Increasingly, payments can be zapped through cyberspace in the form of electronic currency known as ''e-cash.'' On the Net, $5 million dollars takes up the same amount of physical space as a dollar or a dime.

This is just one sign of the legal and regulatory challenges posed by the Internet's rapid rise. The global network of computers is today's version of the untamed Wild West.

Can it be regulated? If so, by whom? And can it be done without slowing the Internet's positive impact on communication, education, and business?

''The entrepreneurs move much faster than the government does,'' says Terry Bernstein, a consultant at the Stanford Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif.

But lawmakers and lawyers appear sure to follow on the heels of the techies and businesses that are settling this electronic frontier.

The task is too complex to be quick, and some lawmakers say that's a good thing.

''Government ought to move pretty slowly'' regulating the Internet, said Sen. Slade Gorton (R) of Washington at a recent international conference in Seattle that tried to bring the murky issues of law on the Internet into focus.

Some experts say the basic task is simply to apply legal principles already established in other arenas to the Internet. If someone is selling information, make the business get export licenses for overseas sales, for example. Or if an Internet user engages in defamation or opens another's e-mail, bring existing law to bear.

''The transactions are known to most legal systems,'' says Cristina Franchi, an attorney with IBM SEMEA in Segrate, Italy. The challenge is to define what legal system holds jurisdiction in a given case, she says.

That isn't always easy. The Internet lacks geographic boundaries and is not owned by any entity.

''It's almost more a verb than a noun,'' says Ed Lazowska, a University of Washington computer science professor. ''It's a set of protocols that hook machines together'' to do everything from exchanging e-mail to publishing books or transmitting the sound and video of live rock concerts.

Last year, a California couple who sold pornography over the Internet was convicted of federal obscenity charges in Tennesee. Critics say that what's ''obscene'' to a jury in Tennesee might not be to one in California.

But an Internet site knows no state boundaries. Similar issues have arisen in Germany over access to the swastika (illegal there) via the Internet.

An international agreement is needed to clarify the issue of jurisdiction, Lazowska says. ''You need some analog of the Law of the Sea.''

The makers of any such agreement should beware of throwing out the baby with the bath water, he is quick to add. ''I'm as worried about smut and skinheads and this sort of stuff as the next person,'' but the benefits of global computing are greater than the dangers, he says.

Even if some international standards are cobbled together, technical hurdles would remain. What good, after all, is a law unless it can be enforced?

That brings us back to the Treasury's Kroll and his elephant.

Digital information is vulnerable to malicious or mischievous invasion by hackers. The identities of the crooks can be as anonymous as those of bandana-masked train robbers.

One way to prevent digital break-ins is by encrypting the information as it flows through various machines on the Internet's far-flung network.

Ultimately this should go a long way toward ensuring privacy and preventing theft of e-cash or credit card numbers. Agencies want to be able to investigate suspicious activity, such as possible money-laundering, that might otherwise hide behind encryption's cloak.

''We recognize the need for encryption,'' says Kroll. But ''we are concerned'' about methods ''that make the identity of parties not reconstructible.'' He offers no master plan to achieve the right balance of regulation, adding that the issues are international in scope.

Kroll pleaded for his audience - mostly private-sector lawyers - to ''put yourself in my shoes'' and consider the billions of dollars at stake in the global battle against corruption.

Many experts sympathize with his view. But others are concerned that privacy rights will be infringed if government gets too much information, especially since they expect the Internet to become the pipeline for daily records and activities.

''I hope that there's some middle ground that can be reached,'' says Mr. Bernstein, the consultant.

Advocates of various views are passionate in part because of the Internet's ballooning growth. Fueling this growth, Lazowska explains, are technological advances taking place so fast that some critics say efforts at regulation are bound to fail.

One conference participant likened regulators to people carefully constructing a 30-foot seawall while a 500-foot technological tidal wave is on its way.

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