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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. Authorities 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?” 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. “We live in a world where we communicate worldwide and we travel worldwide,” Farber said. “If I violate some Australian law and then land in Sydney, do they throw me in jail?” Indeed, U.S.-based Dow Jones & Co. is challenging an Australian businessman’s right to sue it in Australia over an article published in the United States and posted online. A lower Australian court last August allowed a lawsuit to proceed. It’s not just speech that’s at issue. Consider a privacy law recently passed by the European Parliament requiring companies anywhere in the world to obtain permission before sending marketing e-mail to Europeans. Jim Conway of the New York-based Direct Marketing Association worries that U.S. companies may have to scale back U.S. campaigns if they cannot assure that their mailing lists contain no European addresses. 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. Already, a French court ordered California-based Yahoo Inc. to remove Nazi-related items from its online auctions, even though such materials are legal in the United States. Yahoo is challenging the decision. Enough of these cases, and larger companies will play it safe by banning legal but unpopular speech and activities, said Michael Geist, a law professor at Canada’s University of Ottawa. Individuals like Farber may have to think twice before pressing “send.” Farber said he hasn’t received many legal threats yet, but “if this happens too much, and I start getting letters from overseas, it’s going to water down my willingness to do things and say things.” Google and other U.S.-based search engines have voluntarily removed links to a Web site that gives tips on railway sabotage — a means of protesting nuclear waste transports. German railroad Deutsche Bahn had threatened to sue in German court. 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.” Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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