YOU'VE SEEN IT BEFORE: Someone posts a defamatory comment on an online service. Or an article or other form of intellectual property is illegally copied on the Net. It's all too common. What's a cyber victim to do? Since such disputes began to arise in online communities, they have generally been handled by "sysops," the people whose job it is to maintain order on online services such as CompuServe or America Online. However, on the free-form Web, there has been little recourse aside from lengthy court proceedings.

Starting this month, there's a judicial process designed for online disputes--whether on the Net or commercial services. The online arbitration system, called the Virtual Magistrate Project, was created by the National Center for Automated Information Research, a technology think tank, Villanova University, and the American Arbitration Assn. Complaints can be registered via E-mail (vmagmail.law.vill.edu) or at the project's Web site (http://vmag.law.vill.edu: 8080).

Both parties to a dispute must agree to abide by the decision reached by a Virtual Magistrate arbitrator, usually within three days. Think of it as George Jetson meets Judge Wapner.

"We hope to keep cases out of court," says Robert Gellman, the executive director of the Virtual Magistrate Project.

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