Sometimes it can be hard coming up with ideas for a weekly opinion column. But theres one well that never seems to go dry (unfortunately). I can always rely on some court or politician making a shortsighted decision that has the potential to hurt the entire technology business and even the Internet itself.
One such case started out in a fairly standard fashion. At first, it looked to be just the latest in a long line of battles between spam and spyware purveyors and the vendors that offer tools and services to help stop malwares spread.
The latest battle was between The Spamhaus Project, a nonprofit organization that provides widely used blacklists of suspected spammers, and e360Insight, a bulk e-mail marketing company that claimed it shouldnt be labeled as a spammer because people have to opt in to receive its e-mails.
Now, as I said, these types of fights arent that unusual. But what made this one different was the fact that e360Insight took U.K.-based Spamhaus to court in Illinois. Getting what turned out to be very bad legal advice, the Spamhaus folks decided to stop showing up in court. Their reasoning: Since Spamhaus has no presence whatsoever in the United States, the Illinois courts had no jurisdiction over it.
This turned out to be a very bad idea, and the judge ruled against Spamhaus, awarding e360Insight more than $10 million in damages.
And this is where things get a little scary. When Spamhaus didnt pay the judgment, e360Insight asked the court to force U.S.-based ICANN to remove www.spamhaus.org from the Internet.
Now, there are several things wrong with e360Insights request. First, ICANN controls the top-level DNS areas—you know, things like .com and .org—but the organization isnt some kind of über-domain name service that can wipe a Web site from the face of the Internet. Second, taking down the Spamhaus Web site would have no effect on the ability of businesses and ISPs to use the Spamhaus blacklists. And ICANN officials already have come out with a statement saying that theres nothing they can do to fulfill the potential order.
But just the idea of the order is a little scary. If a court order could really take down spamhaus.org and the Spamhaus service, it would cause a flood of previously blocked spam to be released. Even if the case dragged out, like the case that nearly shut down Research In Motions BlackBerry networks, it could cost many businesses money and time as they scrambled to plan for a shutdown.
Indeed, there are some areas in which a U.S. court could force ICANN to take action that would affect businesses across the globe. And were seeing more and more cases of legal decisions against companies simply because of their Web cases.
For example, European executives of online gambling companies have been arrested when theyve traveled to the United States for breaking U.S. gambling laws. It probably wont be too long until we see an executive from a prominent American Internet company arrested while abroad for something that wouldnt be a crime here (for, say, selling books or movies online that are banned in certain countries).
The Internet has enabled sharing of information and spurred globalization in ways unimaginable just 20 years ago. But this also has put the Internet on a collision course with both government and cultural institutions that dont meld well with it.
On the Spamhaus-e360Insight battlefront, the Spamhaus Project has gotten an Illinois-based law firm to take on its case and prepare for a potential appeal. But, no matter how this case proceeds in the future, it has opened up the door for some scenarios that could prove devastating.
Hopefully, laws and policies will go into effect to prevent this kind of widespread effect. Otherwise, we may end up with an Internet with giant walls between different parts of the world, which would really mean that the Internet had ceased to exist.
Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.