Legal Knots in the Web

The Internet effortlessly wafts across borders and hosts every conceivable kind of speech. But borders and laws and national policies remain facts of life that not even cyberspace can ignore.

From international treaties to court rulings in one country that target Internet content providers in another, legal lassos are trying to tame the Web.

This development has both pluses and minuses. On the plus side, some of the illegal excesses in cyberspace, such as child pornography, may be subject to greater control through international agreements.

Matters get sticky when there are international disagreements over what's illegal. Case in point: a long-running showdown between a French civil court that ordered a US company, Yahoo!, an auction website offering Nazi memorabilia. The French judge ruled that the site violated his country's law against hate speech.

Yahoo!, which had already removed the offending auction site, last year asked a US federal court to invalidate the French order anyway. In November, a federal judge did so, holding that the French order interfered with American guarantees of free speech.

Now the original French plaintiffs are in US court appealing that ruling.

It's not the only such dispute. A Canadian court has ruled that a California-based website that denies the Holocaust violates Canada's human rights laws. An Italian judge found a foreign website operator guilty of libel.

Copyright law is another area where the Net offers boundless opportunities for legal action across borders. A number of international agreements are in the works to systematize Internet-related legal issues. Theoretically, with such agreements, legal rulings now virtually unenforceable could be enforced.

But completing these treaties won't be easy. A cybercrime pact, for instance, is stuck between European nations that want strong hate speech measures and the US with its broad principles of free speech.

Ultimately, the only sure-fire way to enforce national laws broken on the Web may be national, local, and even household steps to block access to offending sites. Such steps include software to block or screen content, software that tracks where computer users are located, and negotiations between Internet service providers and national governments.

While legal restraints may build a few "fences" in cyberspace, they're not likely to transform its inherently free-wheeling nature.

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