Here's a tricky legal question: if I take the contents of your French bank account to trade electronically on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, from my Bahamas-based Unix system into which I telnet from Basildon, where have I committed a crime? Such jurisdictional tangles lie at the dark underside of the Net - for through the legal loopholes they create will pass both the unscrupulous and the criminal. There are cries to regulate the Net. But the same electronic powers that enable new forms of crookery also provide the means for the Net to regulate itself.
To understand how, first imagine a sort of comic-book version of the sorts of crimes that will likely be committed on an increasingly commercial Net. Shortly after the first reliable e-cash system is released some bright thief will set up an exciting new Web site. It will be called something catchy and bi-capitalised, say CasinOnLine. It will offer a range of e-cash gambling games with snazzy graphical interfaces, run on machines in the Cayman Islands by operators in Hong Kong. (The company which owns them is registered in Panama, but does its banking in Switzerland.) Unfortunately, through a "programming oversight", none of the games ever pay out; the punter always loses.
Assume that, sadly, the owner of our dodgy casino fails to rise to the moral challenge of his programmer's mistake. Instead of returning the money, he chooses to join Ron Biggs in Rio. The consequences of this outrage are predictable. We must stop these crooks, the press will cry. We must have all-powerful, international authorities to protect our citizens. Send in the United Nations! Send in Interpol! Perhaps Canter & Siegel will demand (again) that the FCC makes the Net safe for them.
It's a safe bet that any international regulation that might result from this outcry will do more harm than good - because it is unlikely to do much good at all. Technology or no, determined international fraudsters have time and again proven that they can sidestep the regulators. Ask BCCI. Or Barings.
Perhaps a better approach would be something new.
The Net is a two-way technology. If the Net can give crooks the power to reach out and touch somebody thousands of miles away, it can also give honest people power to fight back. Already the Net is awash with e-mail warnings of possible evil-doing, from viruses to fraud. With a little organisation - preferably self-organisation - the Net should be able to create its own crime patrols - an electronic cross between Which? and Neighbourhood Watch. Arrayed across the Net are millions of eyes to spot suspicious goings-on and offers too good to be true. Keep them peeled.
Bill Thompson (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org) does his honest work for PIPEX.