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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Web Sites Shut Down to Protest New Spanish Law

APGeorgeos Diaz-Montexano shut down his Spanish-language site devoted to Egyptology fearing legal hassles or a hefty fine.
MADRID, Spain -- Times have been hard for Georgeos Diaz-Montexano's online course in Egyptian hieroglyphics. One student in two years, $12 in tuition.

But Diaz-Montexano pulled the plug on what he calls the world's only Spanish-language Egyptology site for a different reason: fears of hassle or a hefty fine under Spain's new law regulating cyberspace.

Any Spanish-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. 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 the law is so hard to decipher they have gone blank while studying how to comply. Many are small-scale, not-for-profit operations like Diaz-Montexano's.

"With this law, as always, it's the little guy that gets hurt," the 36-year-old archaeologist and historian said.

His site provided free articles on ancient Egypt, and the only fee-based component was the advanced-level continuation of a beginner's hieroglyphics course.

The 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 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 patch of earth and robbing the net of its information-sharing richness.

"This law is a huge blow to freedom of expression in Spain," Kriptopolis lawyer Carlos Sanchez Almeida said.

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 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 not-for-profit sites that take in revenue -- say, from advertising banners -- are considered to be doing business, even if they operate at a loss.

While such sites do not 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 does not specify if this means just IP addresses, individual computers' fingerprints, or other information.

The statute goes even further. It says that if Spanish authorities deem something on a foreign-hosted web site threatening to 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 expert on international Internet regulation.

Fines for violations of the law are as high as 600,000 euros ($590,000), although none have 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.

Sanchez Almeida says 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," 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," 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 says it has 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 Perez has problems with other elements of the law, such as the requirement that access providers save information on what pages their customers visit.

"What is this going to cause?" Sanchez Almeida said. "Censorship."