European governments move to control Web 2.0

For a long time, the blogs, virtual worlds and social media sites of the Web 2.0 world have been legislative no-man’s-lands: too new, strange and complicated for governments and regulatory authorities to understand.

I’m talking about Western governments, of course; governments in less tolerant places like China, Egypt and Burma have had no qualms about shutting down dissenting blogs, throwing bloggers into prison or even pulling the plug on the entire internet when things go wobbly.

Here in the West, though, we cleave to quaint notions of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech, which is why our governments are having a hard time figuring out what to do about the fact that when millions of people are let loose to express themselves online, unpleasantness inevitably results.

Following then-Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell’s appeal in May for British bloggers to behave in a more civilised fashion, the Times reports this week that the UK government is sharpening its interest in illegal goings-on inside virtual worlds, including identity theft, sex offences and – somewhat ominously – ‘anti-social behaviour’. Lord Triesman of the Ministry for Innovation, Universities and Skills said at this week’s Virtual Worlds Forum that there was “a certain inevitability” about the prospect of increased government control of online worlds such as Second Life and World of Warcraft, although he didn’t say whether any specific legislation was planned.

In Italy, meanwhile, bloggers have been up in arms about a proposed new law that appears to require anyone with a blog to register with the country’s communications regulator as a media site. The act of registration would involve the purchase of official stamps, which is being interpreted as a tax on bloggers. Many Italians see the draft law as a personal vendetta on the part of the government against Beppe Grillo, an influential political blogger known for exposing government corruption. It remains to be seen whether the law will be enacted, and if so, whether it will indeed render any unregistered blog illegal, but it does suggest that the Italian government has been looking at blogs and not liking what it sees.

The main sticking point in both cases is whether a blog or virtual world that is hosted outside the country can be subject to that country’s laws. If a blog is hosted on Google’s US-based Blogspot servers, like this one is, can the Italian government exercise any jurisdiction over it? The same goes for Brits behaving badly in Second Life – and that’s without even considering the difficulty of correctly identifying and apprehending a real-life perpetrator who is masquerading under another name in a world that has no physical substance. For a lot of police officers and government officials, I suspect that real life’s already complicated enough.

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