Saturday, March 17, 2007

Hot Topics in Cyberspace Law

The committee's always popular Hot Topics forum was held on Saturday morning (the first meeting day that finally broke without storm clouds overhead...).

The speakers (left to right in this picture) this Spring were David Satola from the World Bank, Marc Martin from K&L Gates, Holly Towle from K&L Gates, Juliet Moringiello from Widener University and Ben Beard from the University of Idaho.

Marc opened with a primer on the ongoing controversy known as Net Neutrality. He reminded us that this is both a new battle but also one that has a historical element going back over many years. The telecommunications industry has long had elements of 'how do we categorize' this form of communication, the reason often being that once we categorize the form of communication we have pre-determined the type of regulation. Marc ultimately left us with the idea that this is a battle with many goliaths on both sides of the concern, one that may be very politicized, and that it may take a while for any of us to have any answers about this.

David, who along with member and IP Subcommittee Chair Kristine Dorrain visited the recent Internet Governance Forum in Athens, Greece, presented a short discussion of what happened at that meeting and what may happen next. His presentation contained a summary of the presentation he moderated on legal issues, and you can see the slides in the linked document.

Holly reviewed the recent re-birth of claims by advocates for disabled persons that the Americans with Disabilities Act covered a retailer's web site as a 'place of accommodation' which needed to be set up with proper tools (such as text tags that are used by persons who need to use vocalizers because they cannot see). The case against Target Corporation, which alleges that Target's website did not allow blind people to use their text readers to navigate the site, has recently survived an early round of summary judgment. Holly concluded that the case was not so earth-shaking as first thought, since the plaintiffs' case only survived to the degree they could allege a strong connection between the defendant's physical stores and the site, and particularly how the ability to use the physical stores could be negatively impacted by an ability to use the website. The judge has clearly not allowed claims to go forward that allege only that the website is itself a 'place' for ADA purposes. While the outcome of this case is not certain, it does seem that the more narrow category of sites that have a close interaction with a physical place that is unquestionably covered by ADA should be paying attention to their sites' own usability.

Finally, Ben and Juliet discussed for those of us who are completely absorbed in the law the new phenomenon of virtual worlds and the legal issues arising from them. Ben noted that within the world itself we have a burgeoning economy, with the potential for intra-virtual-world disputes, as well as the odd twist of (in at least one instance) being able to move 'money' from the real-world to the virtual-world and back again. There are already people clamoring to note that these sorts of systems have the legal effect of turning the operators of these systems into banks (or at least one of their cousins in the financial services regulatory world). Juliet reviewed a recently file action by a Second Life member against the service operator. The member alleges that he more or less received property rights from Linden Labs, and that Linden has improperly 'converted' his property (he'd purchased 'land' in the Second Life world) when it chose to terminate his account.

We give our thanks to those who dragged themselves out at 8 AM on a Saturday, and especially to our great crew of speakers.

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