I’ll see your Web site in court

The whole world really is taking note of what you post online. A December ruling by the High Court of Australia found that a story published by Dow Jones & Co. Inc. on a U.S.-hosted Web site can be grounds for a defamation lawsuit in Australia. The suit was brought by Australian mining magnate Joseph Gutnick over the Internet version of an article titled “Unholy Gains” in Dow Jones’s Barron’s magazine.

Gutnick filed the suit in the Supreme Court of his home state of Victoria in Australia, saying that the article’s appearance on the Internet enabled it to be accessed by people in Victoria, thereby defaming him where he is best known. “The torts of libel and slander are committed when and where comprehension of the defamatory matter occurs,” agreed the High Court, citing several precedents.

Legal experts in the United States say that confusion is to be expected when courts with limited geographical jurisdictions preside over legal issues resulting from content on a borderless, worldwide network such as the Internet.

However, companies should be on notice that publishing Internet content to the world may make them subject to different countries’ laws in the same way that exporting physical products does. “We don’t cry a river when R.J. Reynolds has to obey different countries’ laws about selling tobacco. Why should we cry for Dow Jones?” says Jonathan Zittrain, a director at The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.

However, Zittrain notes that technological developments in online distribution will soon change the terms of future legal battles over Internet content publication. The advent of new technologies such as geo-location tools will allow publishers to precisely limit the reach of their published speech – thereby also limiting the potential legal risks.

While solving the thorny jurisdictional problems, such technology may also result in a division of the global Internet into separate content regions, with readers in Australia, and China all getting a slightly different take on the same information from the same publisher, says Zittrain.