Monday, May 14, 2007

Real Life Crime Here on Your Screen!!

If the law supposes that, then the law is a ass, a idiot!
--Mr Bumble in Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist"

Watch this carefully: I am about to break the law in Hong Kong.
There are shops in Amsterdam where one can buy hard-core pornography.

There, I've done it! I've told you where to find obscene articles. That's what 48-year-old Woo Tai-wai did, and according to the Kwun Tong magistrate who fined him HK$5,000 last week, he acted illegally in doing so.

Except that Woo didn't write a sentence like the one above; he posted an Internet hyperlink in an online forum that led to a pornographic website. And the magistrate's decision proves that he understands neither the law nor the Internet, because what he convicted Woo of was "publishing an obscene article". But an Internet link is not and cannot constitute such an article in itself. Like my sentence above (which you could find in dozens of travel books about Holland), it is simply a signpost that tells you where to find something. It is not the thing itself. It neither compels you to follow the indicated direction, nor guarantees what you will find when you get there.

This site contains a good summary of the relevant law, the Obscene and Indecent Articles Ordinance (Cap 390), according to which "it is an offence to publish an obscene article. Publication covers distribution, circulation, selling, hiring, giving, or lending the obscene article." The definition of article includes "anything consisting of or containing material to be read or looked at or both read and looked at, any sound recording, and any film, video-tape, disc or other record of a picture or pictures."

I don't see anything in there that would include an Internet link; and if this ridiculous verdict is upheld then everyone offering a search engine online is in big trouble, from Bill Gates downwards, because what search engines do is also just tell people where to find things. As one comment on Spike's excellent post on this says, "following the logic of this unfortunate precedent, if I tell someone where firecrackers can be bought, I am guilty of selling explosives."

Looking on the bright side, however, it would really be nice to see all the spammers who clutter my mailbox with unwanted porn links lined up to face justice in the Hong Kong courts!

Other Views:
EastSouthWestNorth - Hyperlinking in Hong Kong

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