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Local Laws and the Global Village


by Glen Emerson Morris
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The Internet, like the global communications web it has created, was not designed to be used by either the advertising & marketing industry or the general public. It has given both the ability to do things never addressed by law, and in the process raised legal issues that are only now getting the attention of governments worldwide.

The issues of control and jurisdiction of a global network, specifically designed to be uncontrollable, are likely to take decades to resolve. In the meantime, businesses going online need to aware that the Internet is becoming the target of legislation which could put them at severe risk. In their rush to exercise control over the Internet, legislators are proposing laws which would severely limit freedom of speech on the net, and be technically impossible for businesses to comply with.

The Communications Decency Act, S. 314 & H.R. 1004, would fine any business or individual $100,000 a day, for every day objectionable material is made available electronically. Even common carriers, like the phone company, could be prosecuted under this bill. Since the technology does not exist to guarantee any communications medium can be censored effectively, only businesses that can afford a $100,000 a day fine can afford to go online, or carry any kind of public or private communications traffic.

The potential for abuse of this law is enormous. Any competitor of any business online could simply post an "objectionable" message or photo on the competitor's BBS and anonymously tip the authorities. Recently, several major Internet access companies had lists of their customer's credit card numbers stolen, literally, over the net. If the most computer literate companies in the country can't keep hackers out of their online systems, the average business doesn't stand a chance.

Even more problematic for advertising & marketing on the Internet is the issue of how community standards should be applied. The debate centers around two points of view. One argument is that any material can be made available on the Internet if the material is legal by the standards of the local community the BBS physically resides in. Under this policy an advertiser only needs to be aware of-- and obey--local laws.

The opposing argument is that any community should be able to prosecute anyone making material available in that community if it violates local standards, even if the material originates from another community. In a recent US government sponsored test case, a man was sent to prison for violating standards of a Tennessee community, despite the fact that the BBS he ran was located in Milpitas, California, and the material it made available was perfectly legal by local and state laws.

As a domestic policy, this approach lets any local community set standards it can enforce at a national level. Any small town can make cigarette advertising & marketing illegal and prosecute any business, anywhere in the US, that tries to advertise or sell cigarettes on the Internet. National advertisers & marketers will have to operate under the regulations of the strictest states, not the most lenient.

At the international level, the "strictest standard" approach is even more troublesome.

For decades European print ads have featured nudity that would have certainly violated the laws of some communities in the US, and some other nations. Now that any French company can go online with an Internet server and make their advertising available to the world, are they now criminally liable anytime their ad violates a local standard? And what about an international ad agency that produces the ads, and puts them online for a client? And what about products like alcohol, that are legal in America but illegal in some other countries? Are American companies liable for prosecution overseas for ads placed on servers here?

In trading free speech for a high degree of political correctness, the American government may be placing US business and society at a severe disadvantage with the rest of the world.

Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Media Lab at MIT, recently predicted that a billion people would be on the Internet within five years. Most of them will not live in the US, and they will have very different ideas as to what legal standards should be. They will have the legal precedent to impose their standards on the US, and the US will have provided it.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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