Internet Laws and Regulations in today's extended societies
The internet is not constrained by geographical boundaries and hence localized or nationalized laws cannot apply locally. However, Internet Laws exist in most countries around the world and they deal with issues related to the legal use of the Internet. Considering that the Internet is not a physical space is in itself, there are quite a few challenges around implementation of these laws. Online material that is legal in the country of the hosting location may violate local laws of another country where it is being viewed or downloaded. However to regulate consumption of material that violate local laws or can potentially cause distress in local societies, individual governments do work out mechanisms that enable regulation of content .Governments have mechanisms in place that ensure there is regulation on what is being served to users consuming and publishing online content in their countries.
In countries where the courts support extensive freedom of speech on the Internet (like in the United States, where the internet is guaranteed full protection of the First Amendment), authorities rely on asking regulators in the chain of links that form the internet, to implement filters to control information flow - instead of regulating publishers of content. ISPs are known to filter content from web sites identified by government authorities as harmful to the nation's interests or disrupting social order in the country. In India, post the November 2008 terrorist attacks at Mumbai , the Parliament has made amendments to the Information Technology Act allowing the government to monitor and censor web content that is deemed harmful to the nation's interests.
In China, censorship and tight regulation has prevented access to social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter.
ISPs and their role in content regulation
As far as the role of ISPs is concerned in the publishing and consumption of derogatory statements, the Communications Decency Act (CDA) in the U.S has determined immunity of ISPs for harmful acts of its users - simply because it was considered too much for ISPs to police the internet and determine what is derogatory and what is not. As the entire process of transferring content is facilitated by the ISP, the ISP is considered as the distributor and not the publisher. The responsibility of editing contents is with the publisher. The Zeran Vs. America Online suit that resulted from internet trolling, tried to expose the deficiencies in this act whereby, despite being informed of harmful statements being published on its bulletin board, AOL failed to block such information from being published. AOL fought the suit citing CDA in its defense. However, in recent times, governments have attempted to regulate Internet trolling by including ISPs as partners in enforcing regulation. Recent reports on internet regulations in China seem to indicate that the onus is on Service Providers (and Social Networking Sites like Weibo) to identify and stop information deemed illegal including removal of information, saving of records etc. - and report to concerned authorities.
Over the years, there have been multiple disputes over trademark misuse and violations. There have been domain name disputes, cyber-squatting, cyber-griping, typo-squatting etc. where parties have diminished business advantages of well-known parties by unfair manipulation of trademark use. An example would be - when a third party registers a domain name that is 'confusingly' similar to the trademark of another party thus resulting in users being misled to the third party's website when looking for the original party. Regulations and bodies like ACPA (Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act) , ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers )and many others were created primarily in the United States, to resolve such issues. Some have acquired global internet relevance while there are ongoing attempts to bring a few other relevant bodies into the global internet fold.
There have been issues around determine trademark misuse on the internet, as in the case of the various suits (GEICO Vs. Google, Rescuecom Vs. Google, American Airlines Vs. Google etc.) contesting Google's AdWords program. Companies have raised objection to the way Google has profited by displaying competitor links as advertising results when the company's name is keyed in as a search word - the contention being that the company name was a trademark, and the action thus violated the trademark law.
Jurisdiction - who and where
Then there is this complexity of 'who' has jurisdiction over content misuse over the internet and 'where' suits can be filed. End consumers of published content access content in a certain geography (country, continent), the originator of the content is often based out of an entirely different geography, the publisher of the content is exists somewhere else and then there is the ISP forming an important link in the chain of connections.
There have been certain interesting suits that can be studied to understand how courts have varied in determining jurisdiction of suits. There is the Gutnick Vs. Dow Jones case, where Joseph Gutnick an Australian businessman filed a case against Dow Jones & Company on reading negative remarks about himself in an online article on Barron's Online. The suit for libel for filed in Australia while Dow Jones argued that the U.S jurisdiction was the correct place as the article was hosted in their servers in New Jersey, USA - irrespective of the location from which it was read. Dow Jones had to subsequently settle the case by agreeing to pay Gutnick in fees and damages. In such suits, the territory where the information has been downloaded and used (and not the place where it is published) is considered to be where jurisdiction can be seized, because that is where the repercussions of the harm are experienced. However, legal experts submitted that this case opened up a potential problem where a publisher who publishes an article on the Internet may potentially be dragged around the world to fight defamation laws in various countries - from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.
Then, there is the case of Irish-Saudi business man Khalid bin Mahfouz suing an American writer Rachel Ehrenfeld in the U.K. for being critical of his family in her book "Funding Evil". The suit was filed in U.K. on the basis of the book having been released in the U.K and also because of the fact that a chapter of the book had been published online in a news portal and had received hits from internet users in United Kingdom - thus causing harm in the United Kingdom. Ehrenfeld subsequently counter-sued Khalid in the U.S under the umbrella of the First Amendment, with a judgment in her favor in the U.S. This case brought in focus the concept of libel tourism that refers to the practice of pursuing a case in jurisdictions that offer fewer defenses for those accused of making derogatory statements.
With the increasing diversity of internet regulations across countries causing confusion globally as regards what is right and what is wrong, countries met together recently for talks over possible UN regulations for the internet. There have been deep divisions, with a bloc of countries supporting more government control while others warning against restrictions on the internet. The perception on what is right and what is wrong is obviously going to be based on strong cultural sensibilities that are often at opposites in the West and the East and further in regions within. The debate over whether the Internet - in matters of internet law and regulation- can truly be considered a virtual world devoid of restrictions of physical boundaries, shall continue.