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Legislators try to regulate cyberspace

Legislators are trying to decide how to apply existing intellectual property laws such as copyright and business regulations to the Internet.

The Communications Decency Act may have been only the beginning of new laws that apply existing legal concepts to the regulation of cyberspace.

As the Internet becomes a vehicle not just for global communications but also for global commerce, legislators are trying to decide how to apply existing intellectual property laws such as copyright and business regulations to online transactions. In Washington today, the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding hearings on copyright laws and how best to apply them to the online frontier.

Many content companies are hesitant to publish on the Net now because there is little if any protection against users pirating and redistributing material without crediting or paying the original source. But the committee is considering new laws that would define unauthorized electronic copies as copyright violations; make it illegal to disable or evade electronic protections designed to prevent illegal distribution; and make it illegal to sell any technology that could disable or evade such protections.

In California, meanwhile, Democratic Assemblywoman Jackie Speier yesterday introduced a bill that would apply California mail-order laws to commerical Net transactions. The bill, which has the support of the state's conservative attorney general, Dan Lundgren, is intended to reduce online consumer fraud and is the first of its kind in the country.

Internet fraud usually involves theft of an identification number--most likely a password or credit card sequence--or a consumer's purchase of goods that either don't live up to their advertising or never arrive at all.

Speier called the proposed regulation "a gentle approach" that would require sellers to disclose refund policies, their addresses and contact information so that customers can easily communicate complaints and resolve disputes. The bill would add Internet sales to existing mail order law.

Speier also encouraged constituents to visit two Web sites for more information on Internet fraud: the National Fraud Information Center and the California Alliance for Consumer Protection.

But while instances of online consumer fraud have already caused several controversies, the Net industry itself may be more concerned with what the Senate is going to decide about the application of copyright law. "Without the measures now before Congress...we just could not afford to risk putting our best programs and multimedia works on the Internet," testified Garry McDaniels, president of Skills Bank, a developer of educational software. McDaniels was testifiying earlier this year before a House sub-committe on behalf of the Software Publishers Association in Washington, D.C.

The House of Representatives will introduce similar legislation next week.

But critics argue that current copyright laws already cover electronic piracy and that further legislation would simply restrict the free flow of information, a characteristic that many perceive as the most attractive element of the new communications channel. Others believe that unless the government steps in to help define what is free, it will simply result in blatant piracy of electronic goods and intellectual property.

"If you can get it for free, who will make it?" asked Kenneth Kay, executive director of the Creative Incentives Coalition, speaking at a press conference about pirated games.

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