Or if a U.S. site sells Nazi material on a site that could be accessed by French citizens, does a French court have the right to ban them from doing so?
The answer so far in both of those cases, it would appear, is yes. As more people jump online worldwide, the number of cybercases involving cross-border jurisdiction is rapidly increasing, but the methods of resolving such disputes are far from consistent - partly because the languages, cultures and laws of the countries involved can be so radically different, according to panelists at the RSA Conference 2001.
Speakers here posed some worst-case scenarios for the technology that has brought people closer together yet tested international borders. Each panelist pointed to more concerns than solutions. For example, Andreas Mitrakas, senior legal counsel for Belgian company GlobalSign, noted that WAP-enabled (Wireless Application Protocol) mobile phones that allow online transactions could be breaking privacy laws when used by certain European customers.
"Caching or storing consumer-related data on networks that don't comply with EU rules may create problems," Mitrakas said.
Another speaker wondered whether more countries and companies would begin insisting that legal challenges to their products take place on their home turf. The move could encourage faulty products if, for example, the buyer of a foreign coffee maker that arrived broken would have to travel halfway around the world to recoup losses, said Marguerite Gear, a consultant and former legal counsel to RSA Security.
The issue of how to apply different country's laws in cyberspace is complicated. Last fall, for example, the Italian Supreme Court (known as the Court of Cassation) ruled that it had the authority to shut down a site that defamed one of its citizens, even though the site was run by an Israeli.
In a separate case, a French court ruled that Yahoo must stop selling Nazi paraphernalia to its citizens or risk a daily fine of nearly $14,000. The Web portal eventually complied with the ruling, though it has filed suit in the United States to overturn the order.
Gear also warned that companies could race to nations with lax laws that allow them to mistreat consumers. She said that if certain countries let companies behave badly, people will just say, "I'm going to this country here, country X, that says I don't have to do anything."
Overall, Gear said, companies and countries must work to strike a balance between consumer rights and commerce.
"What we need to do is bring in consumers and foster some level of confidence among them without erecting barriers to trade," she said.