The lawless reputation of the Internet
is fast becoming a myth of the Wild West - Jan 13 1998

Some of our great cultural myths involve the settling of the Western frontier. Across North America, the myth has two variations: the U.S. version gives us settlers moving into a lawless void, forming vigilante posses to bring evildoers to justice. In Canada, though, the story goes that the Mounties came first, and when the settlers came in, the justice system was already in place.

The frontier metaphor has been extended to the Internet, raising the same dilemmas. There are already the "bad guys" -- hackers, cheaters, pornographers, spammers who flood the system with junk e-mail, domain-name thieves, and more. And then there are the
posses -- users who take the law into their own hands and put spammers out of business by barraging them with junk e-mail in return, for example.

And there's evidence that the various governments are feeling the need to regulate the Internet to bring law and order to this new frontier. In November, for example, the RCMP in Ontario arrested Eugene Kashpureff on an American warrant stemming from his redirection of network traffic to protest the so-called ownership of Internet domain names.

Legitimate business thrives in an environment where the rules are known and consistent. The sense that the Internet is a lawless frontier keeps many from thinking of it as a safe and stable place to do business.

There is an emerging law for cyberspace, however. Some of it is being spelled out by government laws and regulations, more of it is resulting from precedent-setting court cases. And much of it turns out to be not all that different from law in the real world.

Lance Rose is a New Jersey attorney who has been involved in computer law since 1982, and with on-line law cases since 1986 -- well before the current spate of Internet mania. He has written a readable volume: NetLaw -- Your Rights in the Online World (McGraw Hill).

In it, he suggests that the on-line frontier is not necessarily as new as we might conclude, that to a large extent, commercial transactions are protected by existing law and precedent. To see how this can be so, he proposes a series of ways to view our business actions on-
line, by comparing them to more traditional ways of doing business. For example:

* Your Web site may be most like a print publisher, bookstore or magazine distributor. Many Web sites, after all, primarily serve up information. The responsibility for libel varies according to which model can be best applied to your business's Web site.

* The Internet may usefully be compared to a telephone service, to a cable TV company or to a New Age postal network (as many reaffirmed during the recent mail strike).

* Computer networks may be used as public streets, as shopping malls or like a "local bar" (most appropriate as a meta-
phor for Internet chat sites).

* Will the Internet emerge as a toll road or a free public highway?

* Your use of the Internet may best resemble your activities in a supermarket, in a casino or in the privacy of your own home.

One reason that it's easy to feel dazed and confused by the possibilities of doing business on-line is that every one of these metaphors can be successfully applied to the Internet, depending where you want to go and what you want to do. (Just another way that the virtual universe mirrors our more mundane, day-to-day world.) As a result, Rose argues that carrying out business on-line need not be all that different. He suggests that mutually understood and comprehensive contracts remain just as important for carrying out on-line business and for the "virtual corporation" as they are in any other endeavour.

He supports his arguments with many interesting anecdotes and examples, as well as references to case law and precedent. Unfortunately, this leads to a couple of problems.

The Internet is international in scope. Recent attempts by the German government to keep pornography away from German CompuServe customers proved futile, as users were able to use the Net to ignore national boundaries. NetLaw is exclusively American. The general statements can be universally applied, but the case law examples and statutes cited are exclusively U.S.-based. Don't assume that they will automatically have Canadian equivalents.

As well, the book carries a 1995 publication date. Since then, the Net has experienced tremendous growth, along with continued growing pains. The field of Internet law is evolving apace.

Despite these limitations, NetLaw is a valuable resource, even for Canadians -- if only for the appendix with sample contracts. I'd love to see a newer, Canadian-oriented equivalent.*

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan