April 13, 2004

Adin: Policing the World... Wide Web

by Guest Contributor

Justin R. Adin is a 1L at the University of Nebraska. Hailing from New York, he plans to return there to practice law and retire by 35 so as to take up blogging as a full-time profession. - Ed.

"We live in a global world." This is how my first undergrad sociology course started. I swear, I miss those days. Eventually, the professor realized what she said, and corrected it. "We live in a global community." This statement becomes more true everyday. Our societies are merging, with the help of global telecommunications, and more specifically, the internet.

The internet connects many people from countries all over the world, spreading thoughts and ideas. This globalization leads to a problem, however -- how do you regulate such a system?

Generally, each country can regulate the system inside its borders, but the internet spans past national borders. For example, the U.S. government has recently been cracking down on internet gambling. The problem is, the majority of these companies are located outside of the United States. This has led the government to pressure the search engines, causing giants such as Yahoo and Google to pull the advertisements from their sites.

Through the internet, people can get just about anything they want. If you buy from a U.S. retailer, you are technically responsible for the sales tax on the item (to be paid with your income taxes). Yet there is little tracking and enforcement of this. If you buy from outside the U.S., you may be able to get items that are not legal in America.

Of course, when you purchase these items, you generally agree to a set of terms and conditions that include language to the effect of "you affirm that the items you are purchasing are not illegal to own or possess at your place of residence." This is a way to "absolve" the company of liability. This is marginally less effective then the "you must be 18 to enter" links that pornographic websites offer. At least those links you have to look at.

This leads to the problem -- how do you regulate the internet beyond your borders? How much of the regulation should be nation to nation? This is an instance where the U.S. system would work well. In the U.S., the Federal government sets the minimum standard of protection that a person receives. The State governments have to follow these minimum protections, but may increase them as the State sees fit. (Yes, this is a simplified overview, but it suffices for this comparison). A global council, such as the United Nations, can set the minimum standard of regulations. Each nation could then impose stricter regulations as they see fit. This ensures that there is some degree of uniform regulation in the world, and then allows each country to restrict things further.

Then again, this system is flawed as well. One reason the U.S. system works so well is that all the states participate. As a practical matter, no matter how the global council is formed, there will be unrepresented countries, and countries that refuse to participate/accept the precepts of the council. So even with an attempt at global regulation, there will be failures.

The larger question is what effect would internet regulation have on our culture? The internet has been a means for free dissemination of information. The "information superhighway" has changed our culture for the better. Never before has so much information, from so many different sources, been available so quickly.

To regulate this flow of information, to restrict access to the cornucopia of knowledge and ideas contained within the internet, can irreparably harm our society. It is true protections may be needed -- for instance, there are things that children should not have access to, and should not be exposed to. But to regulate what information adults can have access to, the government stops ensuring our freedoms and starts parenting us.

Though some regulation may be necessary, and indeed beneficial, attempts to stymie the flow of information negatively impact the global society which the internet has created. I started writing this asking in what ways are regulations possible and needed, and ended up with the realization that this is not the important issue. It is more important to first realize what the internet means to our society, and what we stand to lose through regulation.

April 13, 2004 12:00 AM | TrackBack
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