The World Versus the Web – Law and Jurisdiction

The internet has become such a ubiquitous part of everyday life that it’s hard to imagine the modern world without a near-constant access to online information. It has been a dramatic change for society, but not all of it has been for the better. In recent years, governments around the world have begun trying to better control how the internet affects the citizens of their nations. It’s new frontier for public policy, as the internet is a different beast from anything that has come before it.

This article will be the first in a series on “The World Versus the Web”, which focuses on the various ways different countries are trying to regulate the internet and how it will affect consumers around the world. Many people are surprised to learn that online regulations in other countries can affect them, which makes “Law and Jurisdiction” a good starting point this series on internet laws.

Defining Legal Jurisdiction on the World Wide Web

One of the biggest issues facing policy makers when dealing with the internet is the fact that much of the activity happens in cyberspace, which doesn’t have clearly defined legal jurisdictions. Countries have the right to make laws for their citizens and for what happens in their borders. But when online activity involves users in different locations, with traffic and services being routed to servers around the world, establishing whose laws apply can be tricky.

When establishing the laws and regulations that a website or internet service will provide, there are a few key things to keep in mind. The most obvious one is where is the company that owns the site located, since that company will obviously have to follow the laws in that jurisdiction. The other key is where is the computer/user that is connecting to the site. Generally speaking, a website isn’t allowed to actively help people break the law in another country. Finally, there are laws that need to be followed regarding data retention, and that can be affected by where the data servers are located.

This may make it seem simple enough to decide who has jurisdiction and what laws apply to a given internet situation, but things get much more complex when comes time to enforce these laws. The global nature of the internet can make it difficult to get companies in other jurisdictions to follow the law.

The Problems Jurisdiction Creates for Extradition and Prosecution

Even when legal authority and jurisdiction are established, it doesn’t mean that lawmakers will have an easy time enforcing their rules on citizens in another location. The internet allows people to connect with users in other countries, who aren’t required to follow the same laws. Even if a country makes a law that holds people in other countries liable for internet-based crimes or regulatory violations, it can be extremely difficult to prosecute people in other jurisdictions.  

Earlier this year, the U.S. dropped their attempts to extradite Lauri Love from the United Kingdom for allegedly hacking into NASA and the FBI. With the good relationship between the two counties and the severity of the accused crimes, one might expect the U.S. would have an easy time with this extradition. Differences between the potential punishments in the two legal systems led to court challenges in the U.K. that the didn’t favor the U.S. If the U.S. can barely prosecute someone from an allied country with an extradition treaty, the chances of holding internet criminals in other locations (like Russia or North Korea) accountable are almost non-existent.

Compelling Compliance from Internet Services in Other Jurisdictions

Though extraditing people for internet crimes can be difficult, there are other ways that internet regulators can compel (read: force) people and companies in other jurisdictions to follow their rules. The simplest way to do this is through legal fines for noncompliance. When the European Union introduced the Global Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), many American companies wondered why they should care. Once it became clear that violating GDPR could cost a company millions in fines, many sites decided to air on the side of caution and made their sites GDPR compliant.

Using fines to compel organizations to follow the online rules of certain jurisdictions may be coming soon to the U.S. Some states, like California, have passed data privacy rules that will apply to any site that collects data from citizens in that state. Rather than risk the fines, many sites will make updates to be compliant with the new rules. This can become problematic if different jurisdictions begin creating competing rules that make it difficult for a site to do everything each jurisdiction requires.   

Countries have also been known to flex their financial muscle to compel companies in other jurisdictions to comply with their laws. The way China has treated any company that publically does something that suggests Taiwan is an independent nation or shows support for an independent TIbet.

Companies that sell t-shirts or other items that show a map of China that doesn’t match China’s vision of its borders can find itself the subject of boycotts and worse. For large, international corporations that don’t want to lose their opportunity to do business in China know it’s better for them to follow China’s rules, even when outside China’s jurisdiction.

Similarly, some countries have greater control over the content that reaches their citizens, which gives them more options for handling issues. For example, they can block sites or apps that don’t conform to the standards of that jurisdiction. In 2018, Russia tried (with mixed results) to block the app Telegram, since it refused to remove the end-to-end encryption feature or give regulators access to the encrypted messages. Likewise, Tajikistan and Uganda both took actions to block internet sites for one reason or another.

Future of World Versus the Web

Countries are entering uncharted waters as they try to regulate the internet. The internet is growing and evolving at a rate that means lawmakers around the world are constantly testing new ideas and seeing what works. Going forward, future articles in this series will focus on recent internet law changes around, how these efforts will affect business owners and what issues will need to be addressed next.

In the meantime, use the link below to check out technology statistics from resent studies.

Donald Postway

About Donald Postway

Donald Postway is a freelance communications specialist and business analyst. He has a master's degree in public administration and a bachelor's degree in communications, both from the University of North Florida. He has worked in a variety of industries, including local government, information technology, marketing, retail and more.

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