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International law was murky even before the Internet made a mockery of national borders. So pity the brain trust of diplomats holed up in The Hague, Netherlands, for the past two weeks. Their mission: Work on a new treaty to determine how private parties file civil lawsuits when the plaintiff and defendant are in different countries. An agreement, the negotiators hope, will begin to lay the legal ground rules for the next generation of e-commerce services. Under the current tangled web of international law, companies and individuals can win a suit in one country but never be sure that the decision will be enforced in the jurisdiction of the defendant. The treaty hopes to set guidelines as to which national court can rule on a specific case. It would then require other countries to enforce those rulings. According to a draft of the treaty, when a U.S. company does a deal with a Swiss company, both sides can agree to be governed by either the U.S. or Swiss courts — or even a third country. In the case of consumers and employees, they will be able to file suit in their home countries. Opponents of the current draft — led by the U.S. delegation in The Hague — argue that this leaves companies open to suits from all over the world and stifles their incentive to expand e-commerce. Consumer advocates counter that distrust of the Net will not diminish if consumers have only one option for airing their grievances: bringing a suit in a foreign country. Sound complicated? It’s nothing compared with the fight over intellectual property and free speech. U.S. companies and civil rights activists are terrified that foreign legal judgments will trample on the First Amendment. Last November, a French court found U.S. Internet company Yahoo liable for selling Nazi memorabilia, outlawed in France, to French citizens through its U.S.-based Web site. At the same time, the rest of the world recoils at what it sees as excessive U.S. litigation against trademark and patent infringement. So far, no one seems keen on compromise. But if the hurdles to an international agreement seem too high, the organizers of The Hague confab can fall back on a follow-up conference scheduled for late this year or early next. They’ll need to — As chief U.S. negotiator Jeffrey Kovar describes it, the treaty “is not close to being ratifiable.” At least there’s something all the participants agree on. Related Articles from The Industry Standard: High Tech Meets Raymond Chandler Lawmaker Wants to Take a Another Look at Carnivore Top DOJ Official Outlines Priority List to Combat Cybercrime Copyright � 2001 The Industry Standard

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