Anonymous on Sat Apr 21 00:07:50 2001

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	BRUSSELS -- European Justice Ministers signed off on a
controversial law that subjects anyone selling goods or services
on the Internet to the laws of each of the European Union's 15
member states -- a move some fear will discourage dot-coms from
doing business in the EU.
	The decision concerns the so-called Brussels Regulation,
which sets rules on where disputes between consumers and busi-
nesses located in different countries should be settled.  The
text adopted yesterday -- which essentially updates existing law
to take account of electronic commerce -- would allow European
consumers who order goods or services from a non-EU business
over the Internet to sue the vendor in their own national
	The European Commission welcomed the decision -- which
finalizes the law, to take effect in March -- saying it will
protect the rights of online consumers.  "It is a regulation
that we need," said Leonello Gabrici, a commission spokesman.
	But Mike Pullen, a British lawyer who lobbied for a less-
restrictive law, said the regulation will have a chilling effect
on the development of electronic commerce in Europe and prompt
some online retailers to avoid consumers in some EU countries.
He cited as an omen of troubles ahead a French judge's recent
decision to order Yahoo! Inc., Santa Clara, Calif., to prevent
users of its Web portal residing in France from viewing Nazi
material on Yahoo's site.
	While the French case is among the first in which a court
has claimed jurisdiction over a foreign Web-site operator,
Mr. Pullen said it foreshadows "exactly what will happen" under
the Brussels Regulation.  That's because the Brussels Regulation
would allow EU citizens to invoke local laws that run contrary
to the laws of the country in which the business is incorporated
-- unless the business refuses to deal with the consumer.
	"You're going to start seeing disclaimers like they have
in the United States," warned Mr. Pullen.  "If I [am operating a
business in France and] don't like certain aspects of Greek
consumer law, I'm going to say we don't trade into Greece."
	Consumer groups were also unhappy with yesterday's deci-
sion, but for different reasons.  "It's not as specific as we'd
like it to be," said Machiel van der Velde, a lobbyist for the
European Consumers' Organization, which wants consumers to enjoy
the same protections in cross-border transactions that they 
enjoy when shipping locally in a conventional, off-line environ-
	The regulation stops short of applying a blanket extension
of national law beyond national borders.  A consumer in Germany,
for example, can't sue a foreign Web-site operator simply for
offering 2-for-1 deals or steep discounts -- advertisements that
are illegal in Germany.  A contract must actually be concluded
before the German could sue the foreign business in German


Some ideas:

1. In asserting national sovereignty over the wants of multi-
and metanational corporations, these rulings go against the
spirit of the WTO, which I'm sure many will see as welcome.

2. On the other hand, the Internet is an environment not
controlled or represented by any single corporation that
simply does not see international boundaries.

3. The combination of government and business poses a much
greater threat to personal privacy than either force alone.
Governments are, at least today, somewhat reluctant to gather
a lot of personal information about their citizenry.  But by
passing laws that encourage or require businesses to gather
this sort of data, government has ensured that it is a mere
subpoena away (if even that).

4. The only way to prevent a Frenchman from downloading "Nazi"
information, or an Alabaman from downloading pictures of
sodomy, or an Iranian from downloading a copy of "Satanic
Verses" or someone in China from accessing information which
is critical of the government in Beijing, or for someone to
download a movie for which Jack Valenti hasn't been paid is
to rearchitect the relevant parts of the Internet.  If the
locale of the user is sent with each http request in a secure
manner, for instance, then this becomes possible.

5. For the government of France to enforce French laws on a
company which is not doing business in France -- say, for
example, that Yahoo did not have a French subsidiary -- would
be more difficult.  There would have to be treaties, or
reciprocal agreements with other countries, to enable this.
To a certain extent, this is already happening on the matter
of international computer "crime".

6. If the citizens of France feel strongly enough that their
fellows should be prevented from accessing Nazi information
over the Internet, then they will probably not object to giving
up some of their privacy to prevent this.  Neither would they
be opposed to creating a structure or engaging in reciprocal
agreements that also prevents residents of Kentucky from
downloading pictures of bestiality from French sites.

7. I certainly don't mean to pick on France in this regard.
The US government has been a trailblazer in asserting the power
of its national courts in international situations.  American
troops entered Panama on the basis of a US court indiciting
Manuel Noriega for drug smuggling.  More recently, an American
court found that the country of Iran was liable for the ordeal
of US hostages in Lebanon, and imposed a judgement of several
million dollars against that country.  More ominously, the US
government accepted the judgement on behalf of the government
of Iran, with the expectation that it would recover the funds
from Iranian assets frozen in the United States.  In conjunction
with the Panama action, this leaves open the possibility that,
in the future, American troops might be used to collect on fines
imposed on foreign entities in US courts.  (Of course, some
would say that the US and its military have frequently engaged
in just this sort of "collection" activity on behalf of American
corporations in the past.)

8. Internationalism has always been a bogeyman of the right.  Now
that corporate globalization and cultural imperialism have
succeeded in creating a contemptible variant of internationalism,
it's not in very good odor on the left, either.  The Internet is
the most noncommercial transnational *thing* we have, and it would
be a shame for national borders to become a permanent feature of
the Internet landscape.

Curt Hagenlocher

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