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Experts say existing laws work on Net

Cyberspace is virtually no different from "terra firma" when it comes to applicability of the law, according a group of lawyers debating legal issues surrounding the Internet.

About 180 lawyers meeting in San Francisco earlier this week to discuss evolving legal ramifications of the Internet concluded that cyberspace was virtually no different from "terra firma" when it comes to the applicability of the law.

Hosted by the New York-based Practicing Law Institute, one highlight of the Internet Law Institute was San Francisco lawyer William Bennett Turner's analysis of the defeat of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). (See related report)

"An important lesson from Reno [vs. ACLU] is that we don't need a new First Amendment for the 21st century," said Turner, calling the decision "one of the great First Amendment decisions."

Turner speculated that Congress will likely draft replacement legislation, which will take into account what the Supreme Court indicated was permissible regulation. This could include an Internet ratings system and software filters designed to keep minors out of smutty areas.

Other discussions involved the Washington Post vs. TotalNews case, which was settled in June, and the undecided Ticketmaster vs. Microsoft suit. San Francisco attorney James R. Black was disappointed that TotalNews was not decided in court because it means the Internet community will have to wait for court guidance on the legality of framing.

There was great interest in the Ticketmaster "linking" lawsuit brought against Microsoft for its Seattle Sidewalk site but no speculation as to its possible result. The fact that the Ticketmaster link is to an internal page (a particular concert promotion) rather than its home page will likely be an important factor against Microsoft because key legal language is contained on Ticketmaster's home page.

Trying out the link at the conference, Black showed that Ticketmaster has now sabotaged it: Instead of going to the right place, a notice warns that the link is unauthorized.

It was generally agreed that these and similar cases will lead to more access agreements for Web content providers. Such agreements are designed to overcome the widely held presumption that it is OK to link and frame. One attorney showed the audience a relatively brief access agreement that Coca-Cola had on its Web site last year and placed this in sharp contrast with the current one. Now, the agreement is longer and deals with copious legal issues.

No Internet-related gathering would be complete without a discussion of domain names. In a talk entitled, "Domain Name Litigation: What the Lawyer Needs to Know," Palo Alto, California, lawyer David H. Dolkas said that there is an inevitable collision between domain name holders and trademark holders. The outlook, he said with a broad smile, is for continued litigation.

This was echoed by luncheon speaker Raymond L. Ocampo Jr., formerly legal counsel at Oracle, who worried that the seven new top-level domains proposed for the Internet will make things worse, not easier. Most other attendees nodded in agreement.