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Paul D. Miller on Sun, 19 Aug 2001 01:44:03 +0200 (CEST)

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Geographical lines and locations are increasingly being imposed on the
Internet. Is this good or bad?

LONG, long ago in the history of the Internet--way back in February 1996--John
Perry Barlow, an Internet activist, published a "Declaration of the
Independence of Cyberspace". It was a well-meaning stunt that captured the
spirit of the time, when great hopes were pinned on the emerging medium as a
force that would encourage freedom and democracy. "Governments of the
industrial world," Mr Barlow declared, "on behalf of the future, I ask you of
the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no
sovereignty where we gather. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you
possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear. Cyberspace does
not lie within your borders."

Those were the days. At the time, it was widely believed that the Internet
would help undermine authoritarian regimes, reduce governments' abilities to
levy taxes, and circumvent all kinds of local regulation. The Internet was a
parallel universe of pure data, an exciting new frontier where a lawless
freedom prevailed. But it now seems that this was simply a glorious illusion.
For it turns out that governments do, in fact, have a great deal of sovereignty
over cyberspace. The Internet is often perceived as being everywhere yet
nowhere, as free-floating as a cloud--but in fact it is subject to geography
after all, and therefore to law.

The idea that the Internet was impossible to regulate dates back to when its
architecture was far simpler than now. All sorts of new technologies have since
been bolted on to the network, to speed up the delivery of content, protect
networks from intruders, or target advertising depending on a user's country or
city of origin (see - - - - - article


). All of these technologies have mundane commercial uses. But in some cases
they have also provided governments with ways to start bringing the Internet
under the rule of local laws.

"The diffusion of the Internet does not necessarily spell the demise of
authoritarian rule"

The same firewall and filtering technology that is used to protect corporate
networks from intrusion is also, for example, used to isolate Internet users in
China from the rest of the network. A recent report on the Internet's impact in
China by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), a private
think-tank based in Washington, DC, found that the government has been able to
limit political discourse online. Chinese citizens are encouraged to get on the
Internet, but access to overseas sites is strictly controlled, and what users
post online is closely monitored. The banned Falun Gong movement has had its
website shut down altogether. By firewalling the whole country, China has been
able to stifle the Internet's supposedly democratising influence. "The
diffusion of the Internet does not necessarily spell the demise of
authoritarian rule," the CEIP report glumly concluded. Similarly, Singapore and
Saudi Arabia filter and censor Internet content, and South Korea has banned
access to gambling websites. In Iran, it is illegal for children to use the
Internet, and access-providers are required to prevent access to immoral or
anti-Iranian material. In these countries, local standards apply, even on the

To American cyber-libertarians, who had hoped that the Internet would spread
their free-speech gospel around the world, this is horrifying. Yahoo! is
appealing against the French decision, because it sets a precedent that would
require websites to filter their content to avoid breaking country-specific
laws. It would also have a chilling effect on free speech, since a page posted
online in one country might break the laws of another. Enforcing a judgment
against the original publisher might not be possible, but EU countries have
already agreed to enforce each other's laws under the Brussels Convention, and
there are moves afoot to extend this scheme to other countries too, at least in
the areas of civil and commercial law, under the auspices of the Hague

It is true that filtering and geolocation are not watertight, and can be
circumvented by skilled users. Filters and firewalls can be defeated by
dialling out to an overseas Internet access-provider; geolocation can be fooled
by accessing sites via another computer in another country. E-mail can be
encrypted. But while dedicated dissidents will be prepared to go to all this
trouble, many Internet users are unable to change their browsers' home pages,
let alone resort to these sorts of measures. So it seems unlikely that the
libertarian ethos of the Internet will trickle very far down in countries with
authoritarian regimes. The upshot is that local laws are already being applied
on the Internet. Old-style geographical borders are proving surprisingly


In some ways this is a shame, in others not. It is certainly a pity that the
Internet has not turned out to be quite the force for freedom that it once
promised to be. But in many ways, the imposition of local rules may be better
than the alternatives: no regulation at all, or a single set of rules for the
whole world. A complete lack of regulation gives a free hand to cheats and
criminals, and expecting countries with different cultural values to agree upon
even a set of lowest-common-denominator rules is unrealistic. In some areas,
maybe, such as extradition and consumer protection, some countries or groups of
countries may be able to agree on common rules. But more controversial matters
such as free speech, pornography and gambling are best regulated locally, even
if that means some countries imposing laws that cyber-libertarians object to.

Figuring out whose laws apply will not always be easy, and thrashing all of
this out will take years. But it will be reassuring for consumers and
businesses alike to know that online transactions are governed and protected by
laws. The likely outcome is that, like shipping and aviation, the Internet will
be subject to a patchwork of overlapping regulations, with local laws that
respect local sensibilities, supplemented by higher-level rules governing
cross-border transactions and international standards. In that respect, the
rules governing the Internet will end up like those governing the physical
world. That was only to be expected. Though it is inspiring to think of the
Internet as a placeless datasphere, the Internet is part of the real world.
Like all frontiers, it was wild for a while, but policemen always show up

See related content at 


wildstyle access: www.djspooky.com

Paul D. Miller a.k.a. Dj Spooky that Subliminal Kid

Subliminal Kid Inc.

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