The Internet is in certain ways the modern version of the American Wild West - in its vastness there's freedom for everyone, but the rule of law is an experiment at best.
The difficulty of establishing a universal code of conduct for the Internet was made evident in Paris Friday when a judge ordered an expert study to see if it is technically possible to prevent French subscribers to Yahoo! from accessing the Internet portal's online auctions of Nazi memorabilia from World War II. The items for sale include Zyklon B gas canisters used in Nazi death camps. French laws do not allow the sale or exhibition of objects that have negative racial overtones.
Both Yahoo! and the three human rights groups that brought suit against the company said they were pleased with the ruling creating the panel. The team, to be composed of a French, an American, and a European expert, is to make its report within two months on the feasibility of blocking certain subscribers to some online services. Yahoo! has argued that it is technically impossible to block the sites to French citizens.
While the auctions in question are not available on the French Yahoo! site, Internet surfers can connect to the Yahoo.com sites quite easily by simply hooking up with computers based in the United States, where the Yahoo! sites under review are legal.
The Paris case is considered a watershed because it could lead to an Internet war, with those opposing any restrictions arguing that a ruling barring access to a site could lead to broader censorship, while others see sites such as the one selling Nazi items as an unacceptable offense to those who suffered in German concentration camps.
"In France, like in most European democracies, there are laws against racism," says Marc Knobel of the Paris-based International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism, one of three groups that brought the suit against Yahoo! "Most other countries should not be obliged to sign up to practices in the United States."
Those practices include giving people wide latitude for freedom of speech. "The point is whether we want to condemn the Internet to be closed in the same way that the media have traditionally been closed by frontiers," said Philippe Guillanton, Yahoo! managing director for France, when the suit was first heard in court last May.
As a general rule, freedom of expression is less protected in Europe than in the United States. Britain has strict libel laws. In Spain, it is unconstitutional to attack the institution of the monarchy or the person of the king. In Germany, Nazi symbols are outlawed - on Thursday the German Army suspended a staff sergeant on suspicion of setting up a neo-Nazi Web site. In France, celebrities frequently sue and win cases against the "people press" when they consider that their privacy has been violated.
For the moment, technology rather than philosophy or constitutional rights has emerged as the key issue in the Yahoo! case. At the May hearing, Judge Jean-Jacques Gomez concluded that the Web sites selling Nazi paraphernalia were "an insult to the collective memory of the country" and rejected arguments by Yahoo! attorney Christophe Pecnard that the auctions were protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
The judge ordered Yahoo! to bar access to the sites for French subscribers and ordered the US company to pay more than $2,000 in fines to the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, the Union of French Jewish Students, and the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Among Peoples, the three groups that brought the suit against Yahoo!
"The real question for France," Lionel Thoumyre, a legal scholar at the University of Montreal, told the French newspaper Le Monde, "is whether we are ready to assume the consequences of the globalization of information and especially to tolerate the values of freedom of countries that are located just one click away."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society