Within any community, some kinds of transactions are sanctioned and others, like selling drugs, may not be. So the significance of city boundaries has traditionally been that they marked the limits of a community's power to establish and enforce controls on what inhabitants could do: inside the walls, a community's norms and laws applied, but outside they did not. Plutarch vividly expressed the importance of the boundary by telling how Romulus plowed a deep furrow to delineate the periphery of Rome and thought the task so important that he killed the interfering Remus. Roman law provided severe punishment for those who tampered with boundary stones, and the Roman pantheon gave a proud place to Terminus, god of boundaries.
Today, the maps negotiated by politicians and drafted by urban planners are patchworks of ownership boundaries, zoning boundaries, and jurisdictional boundaries. Within jurisdictional borders, local laws and customs apply, local power is exerted by some over others, and local police and military forces maintain power by the potential or actual use of violence. But bits answer to terminals, not Terminus; these lines on the ground mean little in cyberspace.
Consider, for example, control of images that have been defined by those in authority as pornographic. There was a time when governments could effectively control the images by policing production and distribution within their boundaries and confiscating publications at the border. (Some mullahs and isolationist despots still get away with it.) But it is very difficult-sometimes impossible-to create effective border checkpoints in cyberspace. Now, digital images and videos can be posted on bulletin boards that arephysically located anywhere in the world and downloaded by anyone, anywhere, who has a network connection. 22 If they are downloaded through the Internet, the multiplicity of possible transmission paths, and the use of a packet-switching protocol-which means that files are sent in fragments to be reassembled at the receiving endmakes transmissions particularly difficult to intercept.
In 1994 the proprietors of an "adult" image server called Amateur Action Bulletin Board, which was physically located in Milpitas, California, were hauled into federal court in Memphis, Tennessee, and convicted on a charge of distributing pornography. 23 The action followed a raid on the bulletin board premises by US postal agents and San Jose police officers. The prosecution claimed that image files downloaded from the bulletin board violated local Tennessee standards. The defense contended that these files were legal in California and that the Tennessee court should just mind its own business. Of course, if Amateur Action's disk drives had been located in Mexico or Denmark, the postal agents would not have been able to get to them anyway. And if the files had been downloaded from an anonymous remailer, they would not even have known where to look.
This issue has also shown up dramatically in New Zealand, an isolated, island nation long accustomed to controlling flows across its borders. In 1994 the Technology and Crimes Reform Bill was introduced by a right-winger in the New Zealand parliament; it aimed, Canute-like, to roll back the tide of unwelcome bits that advanced telecommunications was bringing. 24 It proposed, among other things, to make transfer of "objectionable" material through telecommunications services illegal, and it made New Zealand network operators responsible for preventing New Zealand citizens from accessing foreign-based pornography bulletin boards. This proposal was viewed with understandable alarm by Waikato University, which is New Zealand's only Internet connection to the rest of the world.
You may sympathize with the attempts of local authorities to control kiddie porn, but how about suppression of dissident political speech? The Digital Freedom Network has dramatized the issue by setting up an online library with the sole purpose of providing Internet access to books that are banned in the authors' home countries. 25 This isn't an option for the literate good guys only, though; it would be just as easy for neo-Nazis to set up a server, somewhere carefully out of reach, for the crudest of hate propaganda. If nobody wanted to download their nasty stuff, they could simply deluge Usenet newsgroups with unsolicited postings. So Fahrenheit 451 is becoming irrelevant; you can burn books, but not bits. 26
Exports are as difficult to control as imports. On national security grounds, for example, the United States bans export of powerful cryptography software. But it is well known in the Internet community that copies of such software are available on openly accessible servers and can readily be downloaded by anyone with an Internet address anywhere in the world.
The rights that people think they have also become ambiguous when computer networks cross traditional jurisdictional boundaries. In Internet discussions of censorship and freedom of speech, for instance, participants often refer confidently to their "First Amendment rights." But whose constitution and whose amendment? The Internet community is an international one, with physical infrastructure and users scattered widely across different political and cultural units, so its norms and laws cannot simply be identified with those of people living within the borders of the United States.