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The G-8 takes on the Net

Egged on by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the leaders of the Group of 8 nations announced Friday that the Internet was too important for governments to leave ungoverned. Cyberspace needs a legal framework that promotes human rights, the rule of law, privacy, security and the protection of intellectual property, they declared, and they pledged to work on one.

Good luck with that.

The declaration reflects the wrongheaded wish of many foreign leaders to tame the Net, particularly freewheeling Web-based businesses and online speech. Evolving technologies and online services have disrupted not just established industries but governments’ ability to bring transgressors to heel. Rather than letting the public, entrepreneurs and the courts respond to problems as they arise, these officials want to impose their own brand of discipline. As Sarkozy put it, lawmakers and regulators should wield more control over the Internet because “governments are the only legitimate representatives of the will of the people in our democracies.”

What that “will” is, however, depends on which people you ask. The Internet isn’t some magical environment that makes all the differences between national governments disappear. Instead, it’s a place where the European notion of privacy clashes head-on with U.S. advertising networks’ voracious appetite for personal data, and where a French court’s view of hate speech conflicts with an American website’s hands-off approach to online auctions. It’s the venue where a British gag order barring the publication of an allegedly womanizing soccer star’s name is gleefully violated by Twitter users around the world.

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To be sure, the Internet isn’t a law-free zone. A criminal act — fraud, for example — is as much a crime if perpetrated online as it is in the physical world. What’s not clear is how to draw the borders in cyberspace between different countries’ laws.

As appealing as it may be in theory, trying to craft a common legal framework for the Net is a fool’s errand. Even if the G-8 nations could bridge the policy gaps between members, they still would run the risk of enacting strictures that are ignored by China and quickly rendered irrelevant by changing technology. The G-8 should try instead to come up with mechanisms to resolve the disputes that arise when countries hit Web companies with incompatible legal demands. As the inventor of the Internet, it’s the responsibility of the U.S. to promote freedom and openness, not to try to make the Internet comply with some global behavioral norm.


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