But is it Legal?

As the Web is extended into areas where skirting complex laws endangers people, many Web stores are finding the cops to be their best friend.

This starts with a trip to the pharmacy, where one person’s necessary medicine can be another one’s illegal high. This has become the broadcast media’s latest cause celebre — Web pharmacies that dispense pills like Viagra with no doctor visit. When there’s a crackdown on such stores here, the business moves overseas, and the prices actually fall.

Now, major online drugstores like drugstore.com, in which Amazon has a major stake, have joined a call for enforcing regulations on the business. A pharmacist trade group has gone further, developing its own program to certify online pharmacists’ practices and post a list of approved outlets.

The pharmacy debate comes on the heels of controversies over the sale of alcohol online, which came on the heels of the controversy over Internet gambling, which followed the scare over Internet privacy and the use of “cookies.” You can see the pattern. There are many areas of commerce that are closely regulated in “meat space,” and for good reason. But no one has yet found a way to extend most laws, let alone regulations, to cyberspace. If a kid can’t get Viagra from an online pharmacist in San Antonio, he’s still just one click away from a Thailand pharmacist, whose actions are beyond the reach of U.S. law.

The challenge here, as in the area of online privacy, is to find a way to make regulation work. If U.S. cops mandate filters on ISPs (to enforce commercial laws), or Web merchants are sent to jail over illegal prescriptions, the tools will be in our hand to control anything on the Web, and destroy the freedom we went online to enjoy.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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