Legal and Geographic Issues on the Internet
Abstract Many states and nations have conflicting laws regarding what type of digital content is legal. When content is legal at its place of origin but illegal where it is downloaded the laws become unenforceable because no single jurisdiction applies. International cooperation and Internet fragmentation are potential solutions, but neither is currently viable. This paper discusses how the transfer of content across geographic boundaries on the Internet impacts the legal system.
The Internet has connected the world like no previous technology ever could. It allows nearly instant communication and data access across the entire globe. Internetworking technologies have given rise to Cyberspace, a digital world in which traditional notions of geography are meaningless. Factors such as distance and national boundaries now can be easily ignored when transferring data. While this creates many new opportunities, however, new legal problems relating to data transfer have arisen.
In most parts of the world, laws exist which govern information transfer. Such laws include censorship of obscene or dangerous messages and media, regulation of phone use, and so forth. Most of these laws, however, date from before the creation of the Internet, and they are inadequate and ineffective when applied to cyberspace. The main problem is jurisdiction. When people transfer illegal content across political borders using the Internet, where and under what jurisdiction did the illegal transfer take place? Furthermore, many nations (and even states) have wildly differing laws regarding what constitutes illegal content. This gives rise to a commonplace situation in which a server contains some content, which is perfectly legal in its place of origin. What happens when that content is downloaded by a host in some place where the content isn't legal? Because of jurisdiction conflicts, modern law enforcement has been unable to control, prevent, or prosecute crimes such as these. In fact, the Internet has completely destroyed national law boundaries and legal notions of geography. Thus, modern law enforcement has no power to enforce laws on-line. The solutions to this problem would be either to establish worldwide standards of law, to which all countries would agree, or establish the ability to control data flow across borders and enforce national laws. Unfortunately, neither of these options is currently feasible.
Let us begin by examining what constitutes illegal content. Examples of such content include pornography, gambling web sites, copyrighted material, and trademarks. The problem is that there are few, if any, types of content that are illegal for everyone, everywhere. Pornography, for example, is legal in the United States depending on age while in Japan it depends on specific content. Old content may only be under copyright in some countries but...