Legally, the Net Raises Many Questions

Back to Contents of Issue: December 1999

by Rolf Boone

Who governs the Internet? In Japan, a country famous for the ambiguities inherent in its culture, politics, and law, this question is more difficult to answer than you may think.

In September, the Bertles-mann Foundation, a private German organization, made waves when it released a memorandum at the Internet Content Summit, admitting that because "no nation-state, no major Internet Industry player, nor any law enforcement authority can handle this complex task [regulating harmful/illegal Internet material] on its own . . . a coordinated approach (is necessary) in four areas: self-regulation; self-rating and filtering; hotlines as a feedback mechanism for users; and law enforcement and the role of legal provisions in supporting self-regulation."

When the conference wound up, attendees -- including Net policy heavyweights like Esther Dyson of EDventure Holdings fame -- fell into two camps: one supporting the foundation's proposals, and the other favoring a more laissez faire approach. Although both views have their supporters, many have pointed out that there are more than sufficient Net crimes, privacy issues, and copyright infringements being announced each day to warrant some sort of regulatory effort. Recent incidents here in Japan have been typical of the problems now being faced in other countries.

"Drug bought on Net in suicide attempt." In Nagoya, a 37-year-old woman is found to have attempted suicide by taking a muscle relaxant purchased (apparently legally) off the Internet. Police are accusing the Internet site of "aiding and abetting" her wish to take her own life. The news story went on to state that "Internet experts said there is no specific law to regulate Internet content, and anyone can access websites full of information about suicide and drugs."

"Principal quits over website." In Wakayama Prefecture, a 54-year-old father, enraged over what little was done to help his elementary-school-age son overcome bullying, creates a website entirely devoted to bashing the school and administrators. It has the desired effect: the school principal resigns. Although the article brings neither the issue of privacy and the Web nor free speech and the Web into question, it does mention that the site "has had 40,000 hits since August."

"Prof resigns over data 'theft'." In Osaka, a 52-year-old professor of economics is forced to quit after it is learned that he posted previously published information on the department's website (Momo-yama Gakuin University). The professor was aware that the entire database, operated by Hosei University's Ohara Insti-tute, was protected by copyright, but felt that by posting limited information it would lead to little harm. The story added that "Although copying information from ordinary websites is not prohibited, it is unclear whether copyright laws apply to online databases. Some experts say there is a need to introduce copyright laws for such databases."

Whether in Japan or any other national jurisdiction, "Unclear" may be the operative word. Law professors at both Rutgers University and the University of Washington -- one specializing in copyright law and the other in international law -- were recently queried on legal issues affecting the Internet, and both could muster little more than "I don't know." The Internet isn't for everyone. One website (of course) does offer an excellent breakdown of Net-related legal cases to date. Seattle University School of Law professor Margaret Chon and her department site, covering course work for cyberspace law, provide an extensive list of cases and the Internet, including defamation, copyright, and privacy-legal precedents that should help the growing need for enforcement, whether it be self-regulated or not.

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