Court's Internet ruling 'provincial': cyberlaw expert

The decision Tuesday by Australia's High Court to assert jurisdiction over allegedly defamatory material posted on a U.S. Web site has been roundly criticized by local media and cyberlaw experts.

In a landmark ruling, the court ruled that a story published by Dow Jones & Co. Inc. on a U.S.-hosted Web site can be grounds for a defamation lawsuit against the story to be heard in Australia.

According to Ronald Movrich, professor of law at Dhurakijpundit University in Bangkok and a cyberlaw specialist, the ruling ignores the new publishing environment created by the global reach of the Internet.

"The court's ruling strikes me as being provincial to the extreme," he said in an e-mail. "The court's decision does not seem to take into account the revolutionary nature of the Internet and its ability to reach virtually everywhere -- something traditional TV or radio programs cannot do."

In its ruling, the court said the ubiquity of the Internet, and the very different environment it offers, was not a sufficient argument for Australia to relinquish jurisdiction .

"There is nothing unique about multinational business, and it is in that that this appellant (Dow Jones) chooses to be engaged," the court said in its ruling. "If people wish to do business in...or utilize the infrastructure of different countries, they can hardly expect to be absolved from compliance with the laws of those countries."

Newspaper publisher News Ltd., one of the several news organizations which offered evidence on Dow Jones' behalf, said in a statement that publishers everywhere would now have to edit their work to comply with Australia's defamation laws, which are regarded as restrictive compared to those in the U.S.

Magazine and newspaper publisher John Fairfax Holdings Ltd., normally a fierce rival to News in Australia, said on its Web site it was "disappointed" with the ruling.

The court also rejected Dow Jones' suggestion that anyone, anywhere would now be free to file lawsuits against Internet content because it offended their particular culture.

"The specter which Dow Jones sought to conjure up in the present appeal, of a publisher forced to consider every article it publishes on the World Wide Web against the defamation laws of every country from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe is seen to be unreal when it is recalled that in all except the most unusual of cases, identifying the person about whom material is to be published will readily identify the defamation law to which that person may resort."

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