ISSUE 429: THE HIGH-TECH OFFICE--Alan
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
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
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
* 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
* Your use of the Internet may best resemble your
activities in a supermarket, in a casino or in the privacy of your own
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