There have been legal clashes in cyberspace before - usually for libel, hacking or fraud. It is the first time that a computer user has been arrested and imprisoned for making threats over the worldwide computer network. The forthcoming trial is expected to send a message that the Net police intend to enforce good behaviour or "netiquette" on the electronic frontier.
The University of Michigan student, Jake A Baker, 20, was jailed on Friday for the interstate transmission of a threat. Described as "a ticking bomb ready to go off" he could receive five years in prison if found guilty.
Mr Baker has admitted posting three sex and murder stories on the Internet last December, in which he described torturing a fellow student with a hot curling iron, then mutilating and sodomising her while she is gagged and tied to a chair.
One of his transmissions read: "Torture is foreplay, rape is romance, snuff (killing) is climax." But Mr Baker protests that they were taken out of context. The stories end with Mr Baker lighting a match to burn her flat - then saying goodbye to her.
"Just thinking about it anymore doesn't do the trick. I need to do it," Mr Baker messaged another Internet user with whom he'd been discussing the plan to rape, torture and murder his fellow student.
The morbid writings were discovered by an Internet user in Moscow who was "surfing" through on-line bulletin boards in early January. He alerted the university and the FBI's newly-formed "Net police" were put on the case.
Mr Baker claims that the violence he depicted in the story stemmed from "stress I was suffering over a student loan", and that the "pseudo-sexual stuff came from raging hormones". He denies making real threats and says he named the female student he had never spoken to "because she was an attractive young woman, and I needed a name for the story I was writing".
The criminal conspiracy charges have alarmed America's free speech lobby, however. "He has published a short story . . . the kind that's probably found on the shelves of adult bookstores. The stupidity on his part is that he named a real person," Howard Simon, of the American Civil Liberties Union, said.
The trouble authorities are facing is how to control Internet transmissions which are threatening, libellous or fraudulent, without stopping free speech.
The student's mother described his writings as "pure fantasy; the judge must have woken up this morning and thought he was a psychiatrist".