Once It's on the Web, Whose Law Applies? ; Australia Court Ruling Applies Its Libel Law to an Article Published Online in the US. an American Court Differs

Article excerpt

We were told that the age of the Internet would deliver nothing short of a global revolution, spreading ideas across borderless cyberspace at the speed of thought itself. But a strange thing happened on the way to the promised land.

Lawyers arrived.

They came armed with a litigation strategy: If information published in the US could be accessed via the Internet in remote international locations, American publishers could be sued overseas for violations of foreign law. And the First Amendment, the crown jewel of the Bill of Rights and pillar of US press freedom, would not apply in such lawsuits.

Last week, that litigation strategy became an international legal precedent after it was endorsed 7-0 by the High Court of Australia. The Australian court ruled that a Melbourne businessman is entitled to file a local libel lawsuit against Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal and Barrons, as a result of information in an article that could be downloaded from Dow Jones's New Jersey web server.

Suddenly, libel law is a speed bump on the information superhighway.

But before the ink on the Australia decision was dry, a federal appeals court in Richmond issued a decision in a similar case - reaching a different conclusion. The court ruled 3-0 that a prison warden in Virginia was not entitled to sue a Connecticut-based newspaper for libel in his home state simply because the Connecticut newspaper's website could be accessed and the article downloaded in Virginia. Instead, if he wants to sue, the court said, the warden must file in Connecticut.

BOTH cases point up the thorny question of jurisdiction - where such lawsuits should be brought and under whose laws - involving a global innovation that belongs to no single nation.

On one side are free-speech advocates who believe freedom of thought and expression are global rights worthy of international respect. On the other side are those who say the US has no right to impose its values on the rest of the world.

"There aren't any easy answers," says Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. "One of the reasons it is especially hard is because the United States has such a dominant role in the Internet and produces so much of the content," he says. "A lot of countries ... would like to stop the flow of information from the United States."

Earlier this year, an American journalist working in Zimbabwe faced two years in prison for allegedly violating a local law that makes it a crime to publish information that turns out to be false. The reporter did not write for local publications. Instead, the information was published in England, in The Guardian, and displayed on its website. The ability to download it gave the Zimbabwe court its jurisdiction. …