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