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Sovereignty in Cyberspace / Two Legal scholars Puncture Myth

Monty Solomon (
Sun, 15 Jan 2006 14:20:30 -0500

Sovereignty in cyberspace
Two legal scholars puncture the myth of the borderless, lawless Internet

By Christopher Shea

LESS THAN a decade ago, in his famous "Declaration of the
Independence of Cyberspace," the Internet theorist John Perry Barlow
wrote, "Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of
flesh and steel ... You have no sovereignty where we gather."

How quickly things change. In a 2000 case, a French court ruled that
Yahoo, an American company, had to follow French law and make sure
that no Nazi memorabilia could be purchased online in France via Yahoo
auction sites. Yahoo first decried the effort as censorship, then
claimed it was impossible to identify French Web surfers. Now, just as
French judges demanded, Yahoo uses geographic-filtering software to
make sure websites viewable in France comply with French
standards. (It uses that same software to give French viewers
French-language ads.)

China, another flesh-and-steel giant, has also proved itself
surprisingly agile. Chinese officials use Cisco hardware to keep any
website with an 'offensive' message from getting through its borders
and Microsoft products to screen words like 'democracy' and
'multiparty elections' from blogs. Last fall, Chinese officials
demanded that Yahoo trace the identity of a journalist who had leaked
information about a Communist Party meeting to an American website.
Yahoo complied, and the man is now serving a 10-year sentence.

In other words, forget all that talk about a borderless utopia and
about blogs dissolving dictatorships-or at least tamp it down. When it
comes to the Internet, "The story of the next 10 years will be one of
rising government power," says Tim Wu, a former marketing executive
for a Silicon Valley company who now teaches law at Columbia. While
some countries are committed to a fundamentally 'closed' Internet,
others want it open. Since technology permits both approaches, Wu
adds, "I wouldn't be surprised if we saw an Internet version of the
Cold War."

Wu is coauthor, with Harvard law professor Jack L. Goldsmith, of the
iconoclastic forthcoming book, 'Who Controls the Internet?' (an
excerpt of which appears this month in Legal Affairs magazine). The
book, to be published in March, could be called an example of
'cyberrealism' in two ways. It grafts the hard-nosed 'realist' school
of foreign policy-states and state interests are what matters-onto an
analysis of what's going on with the Web today. It also tries to
deflate hype by arguing that most of the supposedly unprecedented
issues raised by the Internet can be handled by existing concepts in
international law.

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