The freedoms offered by the internet are many and varied; they do not, however, mean that the rules of society can be ignored. A Hong Kong man found guilty yesterday of illegally distributing movies on the internet may consider himself unlucky to have been caught. This is the first prosecution of its kind in the world. And it carries a prison sentence of up to four years. But he and countless others should realise that the internet is a part of society, not above or beyond it. This means that the laws that apply on the street are also relevant to the internet; the only difference is that investigating cyber-crime can often be difficult. Governments worldwide have been grappling to come to terms with the difficult technological and legal issues raised by the internet. Whereas previously, national and regional boundaries regulated laws such as copyright, the new medium instantly exploded such concepts. A grey legal area resulted in which freedom of expression was joined by the ability to copy and freely distribute books, music, movies and other creative forms. For the publishing industries, an uphill battle to protect intellectual property has resulted. Music and movie companies claim to be losing billions of dollars a year in revenue because of illegally copied and shared files uploaded to person-to-person internet networks. In the Asia-Pacific region, the Motion Picture Association International, which protects the intellectual property of many of the biggest movie-making companies, puts the figure at US$896 million. Stopping this method of distribution is not easy. Whereas illegally made DVD copies of movies can be impounded, computers with file-sharing software such as BitTorrent are difficult to police. There is the added difficulty that file-sharing software often unwittingly puts users in 'upload' as well as 'download' mode - making proof of guilt for uploading less straightforward. To Hong Kong's credit, it has not chosen the easy route of turning a blind eye to the difficulties. Last December, the Customs and Excise Department's Intellectual Property Investigations Bureau convened the first meeting of an internet taskforce comprising government and private sector representatives to co-ordinate resources against the unauthorised distribution of copyrighted works over such networks. Within a month, the bureau had arrested Chan Nai-ming, who was found guilty yesterday and will be sentenced on November 7. Proving that the newness of the internet has not yet been conquered, there is argument over why the government should have become involved, thereby making the matter a criminal rather than civil case. There may be a need for the law to be further clarified. But the government has good reason to bring such cases to court - Hong Kong is a leader in the region in ensuring copyright laws are upheld. It has done much work in educating on the importance of protecting intellectual property while police and customs officers have worked hard to enforce the rules. Such efforts have enhanced our international reputation for being a city respectful of the creativity of others. Companies are more willing to locate here than to other Asian localities where copyright laws are not so readily enforced. Yesterday's verdict sends the message that internet pirates in Hong Kong can, and will, be found and punished. But the problem of theft of intellectual property over the internet extends well beyond the conviction of a single person. The extensive use of broadband makes for an environment in which internet movie and music piracy will be more readily embraced through faster uploads and downloads. Authorities and entertainment industries must continue to educate people about the value of intellectual property and teach respect for copyright laws. This way, creativity can be protected and flourish.