Why Global Cyberlaws Just Won't Hack It

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They may have caused up to $15 billion in damage, but it's not quite clear whether the authors of the "Love Bug" virus actually committed a crime. The reason is that the virus was launched in the Philippines, which doesn't have the same stringent body of laws governing behavior on computer systems as exist in the U.S. and some other industrialized countries. Government and business representatives from the G8 industrialized nations met in Paris Monday to discuss proposals for dealing with a new generation of cross-border, or more correctly, borderless crimes — after all, the Love Bug was a sharp and painful reminder that if the concept "place" exists at all on the Internet, then cyberspace allows us to be everywhere at once, and a nasty little worm freed in a suburb of Manila can within hours crash the computer systems of some of the world's most powerful conglomerates.

European countries at the Paris meeting are hoping to standardize computer security legislation across the G8 members, as well as other emerging computer powers such as Israel, India and South Africa, that could serve as a basis for international cooperation in tracking and prosecuting offenders. But that wouldn't necessarily serve as a deterrent for the Love Bug authors and their ilk. "Anthropologists who've studied virus offenders conclude there's little correlation between the prosecution and punishment of virus offenders who've been caught and the behavior of those still out there creating viruses," says TIME Digital correspondent Lev Grossman. "They conclude that strengthening the law hasn't acted as much of a deterrent at all, since the people who're creating these viruses aren't setting out to do billions of dollars of damage — they're simply trying to show off their skills by writing a smarter virus than the other kids in their clique. When the authors of a virus such as the Love Bug is caught, he or she is invariably stunned that it got out and did so much damage."

The Paris conference, which will make recommendations to a G8 summit that will be held in Japan in July, will also examine responses to other Internet-related crimes ranging from credit card fraud to the dissemination of child pornography, as well as methods of detecting, prosecuting and punishing cyber-crime offenders. Still, the G8's biggest problem may be kids who're not thinking about whether they're willing to do the time, because they're not thinking about that nasty piece of code they're writing as a crime.