Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Friday 12/5/2006The law is another area where I lack understanding - which,unfortunately, is no excuse. Take the sorry case of UK hacker GaryMcKinnon, whose exploits on US computers have made that country'sjudiciary determined to make him into another Kevin Mitnik.

Friday 12/5/2006

The law is another area where I lack understanding - which, unfortunately, is no excuse. Take the sorry case of UK hacker Gary McKinnon, whose exploits on US computers have made that country's judiciary determined to make him into another Kevin Mitnik. He hasn't denied breaking into the American systems, but points out that he did little or no damage, the security was inept and his motivation, while bizarre, was far from criminal.

None of this cut any ice with the judge, who determined that since the crime was committed in the US - despite McKinnon being resident in the UK at the time - he should be tried in the US. If the laws of both countries were perfectly in sync, then there may be some logic to this -- but in the UK, even severe cases of hacking can't attract the 70 year maximum sentence the vengeful Americans could ladle out if they felt like it.

I'm now worried. It's not, as far as I know, illegal to leave a message on a UK bulletin board saying "Tony Blair? That toerag should be hung, drawn and quartered", but if I were an American expressing similar sentiments about President George W Bush it's liable to be interpreted as a threat to the man's life. So if I left that message on a US board, would I be looking at an FBI deportation writ? How about expressing my opinion about the liberation of Tibet on a Chinese blog? One-way ticket to Beijing? There are lots of crimes one can commit online in foreign parts from the comfort of one's own front room.

Alternatively, if I use Google Writerly - a hosted word processing service - to produce an article that I then sell to an American publication, can I explain to the Inland Revenue that because I did the work on an overseas computer, I was effectively non-resident and the work's non taxable? We can guess the answer to that one, can't we.

It is more serious than those somewhat flippant examples indicate. Over in the US, there is a movement -- mostly fuelled by anti-pornography activists -- to impose local standards on online services. The argument goes that if a website or similar does something that breaks a local law, then no matter where that website actually is the people involved are guilty of the infraction. Combine that with a willingness to seek extradition and a compliant UK judiciary, and the possibility arises that we could end up in trouble for stuff we do on our very own blogs.

There is one cunning plan to counter this, promoted by one of our readers in Talkback - when they do break your door down and haul you off to the airport, be sure to leave your passport at home. There's bound to be a jobsworth at US Immigration who'll deport you back again, on the spot.

No diary now for a couple of weeks - see you in June...

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