Owen Gibson

The case is an example of the growing nervousness among newspapers that stories cleared for publication by lawyers in one country may fall foul of the law in another.

THE NEW York Times has blocked British visitors to its website from accessing a front-page story on this month's terror alert for fear of breaching contempt laws.

Anyone trying to read Monday's in-depth account of the investigation that led to 24 arrests in connection with a suspected plot to blow up transatlantic flights saw only a message saying it had been blocked for legal reasons. Nor was the story available in physical form on the other side of the Atlantic. The entire shipment of the paper bound for Britain was cancelled.

The case is the most high-profile example yet of growing nervousness among newspapers that stories cleared for publication by lawyers in one country may fall foul of the law in another. In an article published on Tuesday, the New York Times explained how it had used technology usually enlisted to target advertising to web users in particular geographic locations to block access.

"We're dealing with a country that, while it doesn't have a first amendment, it does have a free press, and it's our position that we ought to respect that country's laws," said George Freeman, vice-president and assistant general counsel of the New York Times Company.

Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith has warned British newspapers of the consequences of speculating about terror suspects. Duncan Lamont, a lawyer at Charles Russell, wrote in The Guardian that the thirst for detail about the suspects, and the willingness of politicians to talk about the alleged plot, was "straining our contempt laws to breaking point."

Several high-profile defamation cases had already established that libel could be considered an international offence, said Caroline Kean, the head of litigation at the media law firm Wiggin, and it was "a logical next step" for contempt of court to be treated in the same way.

If a large international publisher such as the New York Times Company was found guilty of contempt of court, its U.K. assets could be seized and its editor and directors be liable for prosecution. For all the precautions taken by papers, legal experts say there is little to stop bloggers and others from disseminating articles around the globe via websites, messageboards and email.

Mark Stephens, a media lawyer at Finer, Stephens, Innocent, said he did not believe the article was prejudicial and blocking it would increase the likelihood of British readers reading it. "Lawyers have a tendency to be overcautious on occasions," he said. "By not publishing it, it is almost inevitable that the information will come into the public domain in the UK. It is already being copied on to blog sites and emailed around the globe."