A New York Judge has ruled today that Web sites are legally liable under the laws of the country in which the site is being viewed.

The ruling states an Antiguan gambling website is liable under New York state gambling laws, simply because the site can be accessed from New York. This ruling mirrors a UK ruling from last week which states that someone resident in the UK is liable under UK pornography laws for material posted to a server in the United States.

At first, this does not sound like earth-shattering news, but think for a moment about how this could affect you.

Imagine that (like the defendant in the New York case) you run a gambling website in a country where gambling is legal. You might think that your website is perfectly legal as well. As a result of today's decision, you'd be wrong.

Judge Charles Exard Ramos has set the terrifying precedent that if you have a website, it must conform to the laws of every single country in which it can be viewed.

It could mean that the internet is going to require geographical restrictions to prevent legal sites from being viewed in certain areas where the site might be illegal. It certainly places the responsibility upon the website owner to ensure that their site is legal wherever it is viewed.

This ruling also means that people can sue the owners of a website under the most advantageous laws offered by any country or state, opening whole new realms of legal barriers to setting up on the internet.

The European Parliament is currently debating electronic commerce laws for Europe. One of the proposals under consideration is that any business selling on the web would have to conform to customer protection laws in the customer's country, and not in the country where the sale originates. This unfortunate proposal would place extraordinary burdens upon commerce websites and have the effect of severely limiting the growth of commerce on the internet. It is no longer difficult to see how such a clause might find its way into European law.

The Financial Times has the story on today's judgement, and the UK ruling can be found on the BBC News web site.