Where does online crime happen?

Mike Arrington at TechCrunch writes about two men who have been accused and arrested for crimes in their native countries involving the use or publication of information over the Internet.  The Internet services these men used aren’t illegal here in the U.S., but their use of them was deemed illegal in their home countries.  Such events won’t be news to readers of FutureCrime who perhaps also remember the story from earlier this year about Afghnai journalist  Sayed Parvez Kambaksh who downloaded information on women’s rights from the Internet and disseminated it in Afghanistan.  He now faces a death sentence there.  Over 100,000 signatures have been gathered on the Internet in support of Parvez, please consider signing the petition yourself.

These stories highlight one of the unique features of online crime, which is the difficulty in defining where online crimes happen and what legal jurisdictions apply.  In general, an online crime can be considered as happening in any of three distinct locations.  First, there is the location of the person committing the crime.  Second, there is the location of the victim.  Third, there is the location of the technical resources or systems employed in the crime.  In many cases, law enforcement in all three jurisdictions may consider prosecution.

For example, in the Megan Meier MySpace suicide case Lori Drew is currently under indictment in California for  events which appear to have occurred in O’Fallon, Missouri.  Or did they?  U.S. attorney Thomas P. O’Brien said attorneys “saw a Los Angeles nexus because MySpace Inc. is a local company”.  The indictment alleges that Lori Drew provided false information when she registered for a MySpace account and that she violated various aspects of the company’s terms of service, including prohibitions on soliciting information from anyone under 18 and using information obtained from MySpace to “harass, abuse or harm” other people.  Drew’s attorney, H. Dean Steward, has of course raised the issue of whether the case should legitimately be tried in California.  “There are a lot of issues we’re going to need to raise, including why this case is happening in Los Angeles,” Steward said.

In another recent case, Michael Jackson along with Prince, the Village People, UB40 and Bob Marley’s rights holders have hired the Web Sheriff John Giacobbi who is planning to sue the BitTorrent tracker site the Pirate Bay on behalf of these artists for $100 million in both the U.S. and Sweden.  In their response, the Pirate Bay heads right for the issue of jurisdiction stating, “Websheriff says he wants to sue us in Sweden and in the US. Most of us civilized people understand that people cannot be sued outside their own domicile – aka we can not be sued outside of Sweden. So good luck with that. It proves that the sheriff is just after making some headlines!”

To a large extent the location of an online crime and the relevant legal jurisdictions remains an open question.  In all of these cases we see law enforcement trying to define a crime as having occurred  within their jurisdiction or a favorable jurisdiction to allow for prosecution.  The U.S. prosecutors are attempting to stretch the interpretation of the U.S. laws to allow prosecution of Lori Drew in California.  The Web Sheriff is attempting to sue the Pirate Bay in the U.S. for “crimes” committed in Sweden and elsewhere because he can’t sue them there.  There really is little difference between these cases and the stories of  those individuals being prosecuted for what we consider to be legally protected free speech here in the U.S.  We expect to see more law enforcement entities around the world attempting to define crimes as having occurred in their jurisdictions.  Future criminals and crime fighters take note.

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