updated 8/29/2006 4:29:47 PM ET 2006-08-29T20:29:47

The New York Times' Web site is blocking British readers from a news article detailing the investigation into the recent airline terror plot, turning its Internet ad-targeting technology into a means of complying with U.K. laws.

"We had clear legal advice that publication in the U.K. might run afoul of their law," Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty said Tuesday. "It's a country that doesn't have the First Amendment, but it does have the free press. We felt we should respect their country's law."

Visitors who click on a link to the article, published Monday, instead got a notice explaining that British law "prohibits publication of prejudicial information about the defendants prior to trial." The blocked article reveals evidence authorities have in the alleged plot to use liquid explosives to down U.S. airliners over the Atlantic.

The Times site already targets ads based on a visitor's location, but McNulty said this was the first time the technology was used in an editorial capacity. The Times also blocked U.K. access to an audio summary of the top Times stories, which included the article in question.

Other news organizations have blocked content before, mostly for financial reasons, said Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.

For example, the British Broadcasting Corp. has been testing online access to landmark television reports of major world events from the past half-century. But it said it cannot make the video available for free outside of Britain because it is funded through an annual levy on British TV owners.

The BBC and other organizations also have blocked audio and video of Olympics competition because they bought licenses only for specific geographic regions. Likewise, to protect broadcast contracts, Major League Baseball has used similar technology to prevent live online access to games involving hometown teams.

The underlying blocking technology, known as geotargeting or geolocation, checks the numeric Internet address of a visitor's computer against databases showing the company or service provider to which that address was assigned.

The technique is not foolproof.

A British computer modem could, for instance, make an international call to make the visitor appear to be coming from, say, the United States.

And British readers could find excerpts posted on Web journals and other unblocked sites. In fact, the Daily Mail of London published an article on the case, attributing details to the Times.

"No doubt an intrepid computer user will probably be able to access the article," Geist said. But "I suspect the majority simply won't bother."

Jonathan Zittrain, a law professor affiliated with Harvard and Oxford universities, said he doubts whether U.K. officials would crack down.

"They all basically want to say they made some effort," he said. The Times "can say the laws are respected. The British can say the laws are respected. And everyone can read the story."

McNulty said the technology may not be 100 percent reliable, but "we've done everything that we could."

The Times also is keeping the article out of printed editions published in the U.K. or mailed to U.K. subscribers. And it is stripping the item from a news service for ships and hotels printed by a company in Liverpool.

McNulty said the last time the newspaper blocked a specific article was about 15 years ago. The newspaper feared that Canadian authorities would confiscate an edition that reported on a sex abuse trial, she said, so the item was kept out of the early editions that got sent to Canada.

It's not clear whether the Times' decision would make it more likely for news organizations to engage in country-specific self-censorship in the future, particularly in areas involving libel, where protections aren't as strong outside the United States.

After all, courts already have applied country-specific laws to the borderless Internet.

An Australia court in 2002 allowed a defamation case against Dow Jones & Co. to be heard in that country because people there could have read the article in question online. The case was ultimately settled.

Earlier, a French judge had ordered Yahoo Inc. to prevent French users from encountering Nazi paraphernalia banned in France on the Yahoo auction site meant for U.S. visitors.

"Courts will start to take note of the availability of those technologies," Geist said. "Now that it's increasingly proven technology with a base level of effectiveness, I expect we'll see that consideration."

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