Sueing Google – how far does the law extend into the internet?

judge's gavelOK, you’ve probably seen this story already, primarily re-reported with a certain muted gloating that someone got one over on the Big G; a guy called Aaron Greenspan has successfully retrieved $721 of AdSense earnings from Google by filing a small claims lawsuit against them after his account was closed without explanation.

This is great news for all the people who fear Google’s monopoly on search, but what bothers me here is the question of whether the spirit of the law that governs an internet user need necessarily prevail in any section of cyberspace said user chooses to use.

I spoke with Adam C. of AdWords once more on the phone. After pointing out that in the United States of America, the accused are generally given the right to know both the crimes they are being accused of, and the identities of their accusers, Mr. C. responded by saying that such thinking did not apply to Google’s terms of service. Effectively, Google’s position was that it was above the law, and if not any law in particular, then at least the spirit of the law.

In this case, the judge disagreed with that stance (though it should be noted that, as it appears above, it has been paraphrased by Greenspan rather than quoted directly). With the inevitable caveat that I am not a lawyer or legal professional, it strikes me that this sort of question will become increasingly important as virtual worlds proliferate.

Let’s say you get burnt in a gold-trading deal in your favourite MMO; who has legal jurisdiction over an exchange that happens entirely electronically? Just how binding is that click-through EULA for the game, or for the trading site? If you’re based in the US but the huckster is based in China, how would you go about prosecuting (if you could at all)? [via The Guardian; image by steakpinball]

Questions like this are a reminder that the internet is still a wild frontier with a whole lot of loopholes. If nation-states are weakening in influence, how will they project the legal protections of their citizens into a space that has no geography?