Think of the internet, and what country immediately springs to mind?

If you're one of the huge number of people that automatically assumes your country is the centre of the net, think again.

One of the most common mistakes made today is to assume that the internet has a physical location, that national laws can be applied to it in the manner of a possession. Law-makers and regulators are rushing to prove their knowledge of the internet's implications by restricting them with local laws, and in the process are proving their ignorance on a daily basis.

Those who truly understand the internet cannot ignore the fact that it's an international network that cannot be regulated using national laws. We're already seeing the first hints of problems caused by conflicting laws, assumed jurisdictions, and incompetent legislators, as activites legal in one place may be illegal in another.

At first glance, this doesn't seem like a particular problem, however, what happens when a government tries to force particular moral values on the global network? Or tries to prosecute somebody for posting something that in one country is legal but in another isn't?

It's only a matter of time before a government tries to set technological standards into law on the internet. Witness America's attempts to prevent the use of strong encryption outside of the US, a move that is widely acknowledged as responsible for the stunted growth of electronic commerce outside of the US. For a further example, take the US government's domination of the international Top Level Domains, and the resulting fiasco involving Network Solutions.

National legislation on a world-wide scale doesn't, and will not work. Already the internet has proven it's ability to aid those who wish to circumvent laws. Worse than that, local decisions governing businesses that use the internet are threatening massive trade disputes, as nobody can agree on how to regulate the net. Currently, there is a European directive that prevents EU member states from exporting customer data to countries without similiar levels of privacy legislation. Although not yet enforced, such a law could cause a trade between Europe and the United States, because the US encourages industry self-regulation in privacy matters.

It's clear that another measure is needed if legislation is to be applied to the internet. (For those of you who think the internet doesn't require legislative restrictions, you should consider such problems as the distribution of kiddie porn, spam, and your personal credit card numbers.) There are already ample precendents for legal bodies with international powers and jurisdiction, such as the World Court and international laws governing war. It seems time that individual governments recognise their inability to deal with the challenges that the internet presents, and collaborate in creating an effective international body to oversee the net and it's legal ramifications. The day is rapidly coming when America will no longer dominate the internet, as American users will be a minority, and the US will not be responsible for the net's development.

That is assuming, of course, that disparate nations could agree on the creation of an international body. Given many of the past examples of political processes hampering technological progress, the future looks uncertain at best.