- The Washington Times - Monday, November 4, 2002

MADRID Times have been hard for Georgeos Diaz-Montexano's online course in Egyptian hieroglyphics. One student in two years, $12 in tuition.
But Mr. Diaz-Montexano, 36, pulled the plug on what he calls the world's only Spanish-language Egyptology site for a different reason: fears of hassles or a hefty fine under Spain's new law regulating cyberspace.
Any Spain-based Web site that engages in commerce even a struggling Egyptology site must now register with the government under a stringent new law that took effect Oct. 12.
The tough rules have prompted at least 300 Web site owners to take their pages offline in protest, according to Kriptopolis, a digital rights and Internet-security site coordinating the campaign against the new Spanish law (on the Net at https://www.kriptopolis.com). It has drawn support from online civil libertarians across Europe.
Many site operators say their protest is open-ended, but others are gone for good.
Still others say that the law is so hard to decipher they've gone blank while studying how to comply. Many are small-scale, nonprofit operations such as Mr. Diaz-Montexano's.
"With this law, as always, it's the little guy that gets hurt," said the archaeologist and historian.
His site provided free articles on ancient Egypt, and the only fee-based component was the advanced-level continuation of a beginner's course in reading hieroglyphics.
The Spanish government says the law, which stems from European Union directives, aims to encourage online commerce by making the Internet a safer place to do business. It also wants companies operating on the Internet to be subject to the same tax and commerce laws as traditional firms.
But opponents say Spain has gone far beyond the spirit of the EU guidelines, trying to regulate cyberspace more strictly than it does its own territory and robbing the Internet of its information-sharing richness.
"This law is a huge blow to freedom of expression in Spain," said Kriptopolis lawyer Carlos Sanchez Almeida.
In addition to being compelled to sign up with the government's mercantile register, the law requires Web sites that carry out commercial transactions to display a company address and tax number. The idea is to give customers a physical place to turn to if a problem arises.
The law would also apply to foreign-hosted Web sites if the people transacting business on them are physically in Spain.
Even nonprofit sites that take in revenue say, from advertising banners are considered to be doing business, and even if they operate at a loss.
Though such nonprofit sites don't have to register, the government says, they do have to publish the webmaster's name, address and national identification number.
Other provisions of the law oblige Internet access providers and Web sites to store customers' "connection and traffic data" for up to a year. But the law doesn't specify if this means just IP addresses individual computers' fingerprints or more detailed information.
The new law goes even further:
It says that if Spanish authorities deem something on a foreign-hosted Web site as threatening Spain's national defense, public order, consumer rights or other values, they can order Spanish operators to sever access to that site.
That clause puts Spain in the same league of content control as Saudi Arabia and China, said Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard Law School specialist on international Internet regulation.
Fines for violations of the law are as high as 600,000 euros ($590,000), although none has been reported.
The government calls the Web protests a hasty overreaction, and says it is working out details of exactly how it will apply the law.
Mr. Sanchez Almeida said that many people are troubled by the on-screen identification clause. He said 90 percent of Spain's Web pages are run by self-employed people or nonprofit groups.
"Now, through the Internet, anybody can know who they are. And to a certain extent that endangers their privacy," Mr. Sanchez Almeida said.
He said the law will discourage people from creating Web sites simply because a subject interests them and they want to share their knowledge.
"Until now, this was the essence of the Internet what generated its spontaneity," Mr. Sanchez Almeida said. "Now it is a strictly regulated activity, sometimes even more regulated than the real world."
Miguel Perez, president of the Association of Internet Users, which claims 8,000 members, said his consumer group backs the display of a site operator's identification information.
"From the user's point of view, what I want is for a person doing business with me to tell me who they are," he said.
But Mr. Perez has problems with other parts of the law, such as the requirement that access providers save information on what pages their customers visit.
"What is this going to cause?" Mr. Sanchez Almeida asked rhetorically. "Censorship."

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