What is Internet Jurisdiction?

Anna B. Smith

Internet jurisdiction is used to determine which legal authority may hear a case, between a defendant and plaintiff, in which the potential crime was committed on the Internet. Typically, when a plaintiff, or the individual who initiates a lawsuit, wishes to accuse someone of a crime, he appeals to the legal authority, or court, given jurisdiction over the geographical area where the crime occurred. Internet crime, however, is difficult to assign to a particular geographic location because the originator of the website may be located in a different region or country than the individual against whom the crime was allegedly committed.

A country may prosecute individuals or another company that violates its laws via the internet, even though those involved may live in a different country.
A country may prosecute individuals or another company that violates its laws via the internet, even though those involved may live in a different country.

When determining state jurisdiction within the United States, current US legal precedence has established that a website operator must exhibit the intention to do business within a specific region in order for that regional court to claim jurisdiction. For example, if a plaintiff in Massachusetts believes that the content of a website, operated in the state of California, violates laws unique to Massachusetts, the plaintiff must prove that the website specifically targets his state as a region in which it wishes to do business. If this intent can be proven, a Massachusetts judge and court would have jurisdiction over the case.

Evidence of intent to do business may be proved through various means, such as contact, made by the website operators, with businesses in a specific geographic area, via the website itself. It could also be established if operators made business trips, telephone calls, or fax messages to the region. A variety of other means for proving the intent to do business exist as well, and are often determined by the court of jurisdiction on a case-by-case basis.

Internet jurisdiction at the international level is not similarly regulated. US law provides a guideline by which separate state courts may base their decisions, and states can reference decisions achieved through other state court cases as a basis for their decision. In other words, while a Texas state court may use a ruling made by a court in Wisconsin to make a decision on an Internet case, no such higher authority exists to regulate separate countries.

In such cases, each country typically takes its own laws into consideration when determining legal action, before considering the laws of the country in which the defendant may live. If one nation determines a crime was committed on the Internet, according to it's laws, and determines that its courts have jurisdiction over the case, then that country may prosecute the individuals or company that operates the website, even though those involved may live in a different country.

A somewhat well-known example of international Internet jurisdiction is the case of Dow Jones & Company v. Gutnik. In it, a US Internet publication posted potentially damaging information regarding an Australian citizen. The High Court of Australia then determined that, if information is viewable within Australia, that information and its publishers are subject to the legal jurisdiction of Australia.

An Australian court ruled that an individual's right to be protected from libelous speech outweighs the rights of an Internet publication to publish any material it wishes as a form of freedom of speech. As such, the court also ruled that the website had to remove the material from the Internet. The High Court cited the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a covenant which, among other things, protects individuals from international attack on their honor or reputation, as a basis for upholding individual rights. The material published on the Internet by the American website, however, was not in violation of any US laws.

The pace of global Internet growth continues to grow at a more rapid rate than governing law. As it, and technical capabilities, outpace the judicial systems of the world, regional and international courts continue to face cases with no legal precedence. Until laws exist to address every possible Internet crime, Internet jurisdiction will most likely be largely determined through case history.

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Discussion Comments


@anon130011- If a Brit sued you and you were in the EU, the Brussels Regulation would be applicable. But since you are outside of the EU, the case will be seen under British common law.

The court might also look at what the purpose of your website is. For example, if you have content on your site that's directed at UK residents or if you sell products and services to UK residents, that definitely falls under UK jurisdiction.


@anon130011-- You have to learn the internet jurisdiction laws of Pakistan and England. It will depend on what they are suing you about and if there was a business transaction or agreement made.

Sometimes the two parties can come to an agreement on where they want to have the trial and initiate it in that country. It is also possible for some national courts to refuse to have jurisdiction over an internet based case, so you might be forced to have it in the country that agrees to oversee it.


If I enter into a transaction with the US via website and I am based in Australia, and I wish to sue them for breach of contract, how will the courts decide which laws apply?


if i am operating a website in pakistan and someone from england sues me, where is the case going to be fought?

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