Location Independence, Obscenity, and the Internet

Yousuf Dhamee

The most interesting (and the most complex) legal issue that faces the internet is rooted in the fact that the Net is not impeded by state or national boundaries. How can cyber-disputes be settled in court if one of the litigants resides in New York while the other lives in Hamburg? In the words of Diamond and Bates, "Whose rules apply in cyberspace?" The same document that is legally entered into a computer in one place may be illegal to download in another. The Net's antispatial nature defies attempts to regulate its informational flow from any one location. As Mitchell points out,

The Net negates geometry . . . it is fundamentally and profoundly antispatial. You cannot say where it is or describe its memorable shape and proportions or tell a stranger how to get there. But you can find things in it without knowing where they are. The Net is ambient-- nowhere in particular and everywhere at once.

Sometimes it is even difficult to determine where a document has been sent from. Because one can access the Net from nearly anywhere, determining the geographical source of a posting can be nearly impossible. What if an entry on the Net is made from a boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean? This medium simply does not lend itself to traditional land-based law.

The issue of obscenity, which is normally determined by local or community standards is especially affected by anti-spatial tendencies of the Web. Diamond points to a case where citizens of California were arrested and charged with obscenity based on the complaints of a Tennessee man who downloaded pornographic pictures from his home in Memphis. The same material which is not considered obscene in the home of the provider is indeed considered criminal in the land of the client. In this case, the defendants were tried and found guilty in Tennessee. It is difficult to understand how individuals who never set foot inside of a state can be convicted there on any charges.

Those who defend the California pornographer claim that owning pornography is not a crime in any state, although the purchase of pornography is a punishable offense in Tennessee. These individuals maintain that since anyone can buy material and then transport it anywhere (in the US), no laws were really violated. The images, after all, never really "left" California. Although the courts have been skeptical of similar arguments in regards to mail order pornography (Diamond), it is not clear that the two situations are perfectly analogous. No tangible items are exchanged in a cyber-sale. The California merchants did not give anything away, except perhaps the permission to raid their computer's memory. Because the Net confounds traditional notions of space there is not a fool-proof method of dealing with geographically determined laws of acceptability. One way of looking at the issue is to consider the Net and its users a community defined by participation, rather than geography (Diamond). Although this view of things is more forward-thinking, realistic and appropriate to the Web than traditional law, it presents problems for the courts by undermining their power and jurisdiction. For the time being it seems that the legal system is content to awkwardly transfer existing laws to the Internet, rather than taking the time to frame legislation that is appropriate for this new medium.