Another example of our borderless world takes the form of a lawsuit against Google. Privacy campaigners in the UK protest that the Google search engine ignores the privacy settings in certain browsers and tracks users’ web-surfing history without their knowledge and specifically without their permission.
The case is brought in the English courts by people who live in England and use their computers here. Google argues that any such case should be brought in California, where it is based, and is asking for the claim to be struck out.
Who is right?
If I read the pages of an American website on my British computer screen, am I visiting America to read the pages, or are those pages coming here to be read? If the latter, then any website (including this one) has got to be ready to comply with all the laws of every country in which there might be readers (although I suppose we can hope that any foreign court judgments will be unenforceable here).
In that light, it does perhaps seem more likely that the onus is on the visitor rather than the website, in that reading an American website or buying from an American online store amounts to doing business in America rather than doing it here in the UK. Although, and this is the next argument put forward by the campaigners, is a company with a large UK corporate presence – selling advertising space to British advertisers, for example – really an American company in this context? The fact that the software was written in California should make no difference (and maybe that software was itself written by a team of developers working remotely in many different parts of the world and collaborating through the Cloud). If Google exists as a company established in the UK, offering its products and services to people in the UK, then it is the law of the UK that should apply. I don’t have to complain in Sweden if the IKEA store in Wembley lets me down.
Either of these arguments, California or London, might be true, and that is before we have even begun to think about the location of the servers where the data is stored or the intermediate servers through which the packets of information are transmitted.
These business activities are now borderless, but the legal systems that attempt to control them are not. At some point, people and governments will get fed up with the mis-match and try to sort this out. But not yet.