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Alarming Internet Jurisdiction Precedent Set

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Seb Potter

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User since: 22 Apr 1999

Articles written: 19

A New York Judge has ruled today that Web sites are legally liable under the laws of the country in which the site is being viewed.

The ruling states an Antiguan gambling website is liable under New York state gambling laws, simply because the site can be accessed from New York. This ruling mirrors a UK ruling from last week which states that someone resident in the UK is liable under UK pornography laws for material posted to a server in the United States.

At first, this does not sound like earth-shattering news, but think for a moment about how this could affect you.

Imagine that (like the defendant in the New York case) you run a gambling website in a country where gambling is legal. You might think that your website is perfectly legal as well. As a result of today's decision, you'd be wrong.

Judge Charles Exard Ramos has set the terrifying precedent that if you have a website, it must conform to the laws of every single country in which it can be viewed.

It could mean that the internet is going to require geographical restrictions to prevent legal sites from being viewed in certain areas where the site might be illegal. It certainly places the responsibility upon the website owner to ensure that their site is legal wherever it is viewed.

This ruling also means that people can sue the owners of a website under the most advantageous laws offered by any country or state, opening whole new realms of legal barriers to setting up on the internet.

The European Parliament is currently debating electronic commerce laws for Europe. One of the proposals under consideration is that any business selling on the web would have to conform to customer protection laws in the customer's country, and not in the country where the sale originates. This unfortunate proposal would place extraordinary burdens upon commerce websites and have the effect of severely limiting the growth of commerce on the internet. It is no longer difficult to see how such a clause might find its way into European law.

The Financial Times has the story on today's judgement, and the UK ruling can be found on the BBC News web site.

Seb is a Jedi Master in the art of creating sites and keeping servers running. This often means hitting them repeatedly with forces that defy rational explanation, though he prefers to descibe it as "administration". When he's not practising his percussive skills on E450s and AS400s, he can be found masquerading as the senior developer for some widely varied clients. It's still not certain whether or not the meanings of CMS, CRM, and B2B have penetrated the alcoholic fog enveloping his brain, but he makes convincing noises to customers about XML, XSLT, Python, J2EE, PHP, Perl, C++, and OpenGL.

Seb has been in the web game pretty much since it began, and still has fond memories of the time when a web could be swept aside with a duster and spam was pork luncheon meat. Despite being the developer of one of the first commerce sites in Europe, he has yet to make any real money.

Being English, Seb doesn't like SOAP, but instead has recently discovered something called ZOPE. Zope is a platform that runs Plone which he thinks is the coolest thing since high-performance, real-time 3D APIs, which he often writes small games in.

Seb lives in the best little city in the world, and used to commute 5 hours a day on British trains. He is subsequently immune to all forms of torture techniques.

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