The vast, unregulated space of the Internet is starting to run up against boundaries.
New guidelines established by Yahoo! Inc. take effect today banning online auctions of Nazi artifacts and Ku Klux Klan paraphernalia from its classified listings and its e-commerce partners worldwide.
The decision by the world's largest Internet portal to prescreen and ban material considered to be racist is being called a boon to antihate groups, and a blow to free speech advocates. (Related story, page 11)
The Yahoo! global ban follows a Nov. 20 ruling by a French court ordering the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company to make it impossible for French customers to bid for some 1,200 Nazi-related items, including SS belt buckles, arm bands, swastikas, and Zyklon B gas canisters, on the Internet.
The French ruling, still being challenged in US courts by Yahoo!, is seen as a crucial test of whether the laws in one nation will govern what other nations can do on the Net.
Officials at Yahoo! insist that removing the auction sites dedicated to Nazi memorabilia and Ku Klux Klan paraphernalia has nothing to do with the decision by Paris Superior Court Judge Jean-Jacques Gomez, giving Yahoo! France three months to prevent French from gaining access to the material. The judge also imposed a $13,000 fine for each day that Yahoo! failed to block the material after the deadline.
On Dec. 21, Yahoo! countered with a suit in a US court aimed at overturning the French court's order on grounds that France has no jurisdiction over the California company. "The case continues because there is an important issue at stake," Michael Traynor, who is representing Yahoo! in the French court, told the French news agency Agence France Presse. "It's one thing to do something voluntarily, but it's another to be ordered to do something," he said.
Mr. Traynor said Yahoo! decided to remove the Nazi and Ku Klux Klan auction sites because of its concern about diffusing hate material, but added that the company was also highly concerned that the French ruling was a limit on free speech. He said the fact that the new rules do not apply to chat rooms, youth clubs, and personal websites proves that the company was not following the court order.
Yahoo! also argues that because it is now charging a fee to customers who order from its auction sites, it is responsible for their content. Without such a fee, the company says, removing material some consider to be offensive could have been interpreted as censorship.
The French plaintiffs disagree. "Yahoo! would have never removed the Nazi sites if we had not taken action. It's evident," says Marc Knobel, a director of the Paris-based International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism. His group was one of three French organizations that brought the original court action against Yahoo! in May.
Mr. Knobel adds that the massive media coverage of the case, similar problems with some of its sites in Germany, Japan, and Argentina, as well as a sharp drop in the value of its stock, led Yahoo! to take action. "It was a correlation of circumstances," he says.
"We are not fully satisfied with the results," Knobel says. His organization is considering bringing similar legal action against the US server GeoCities because it carries hate Web sites that are banned in Europe and that in some cases encourage the killing of Jews, blacks, and immigrants. "If one shares our concern, it must be shared fully," he says.
Legal experts generally believe that despite Yahoo!'s claims to the contrary, the company was forced to take action because of the French court ruling. Internet service providers, they say, could expect similar suits from other groups such as right-wing religious movements that show little concern for the First Amendment of the US Constitution or freedom of speech.
The Nazi period and its accompanying occupation of two-thirds of France by Hitler's Army weigh heavily in the French consciousness. Thousands of concentration-camp survivors are still alive. During the past decade the French have finally publicly come to terms with their extensive collaboration with the Nazi regime, a collaboration that sent thousands of French Jews to their deaths in the gas chambers.
At the original hearing in May, Judge Gomez said the sites selling Nazi paraphernalia were "an insult to the collective memory" of France and rejected arguments that they were protected by the First Amendment. In August, responding to arguments put forward by Yahoo! that it was difficult to bar access to the sites by French citizens using the American Yahoo! server, Gomez created a panel of three experts to study the problem.
The group concluded in early November that the identification used by Internet users to enter a site is 70 percent effective. The three experts, including the American Vinton Cerf, considered one of the inventors of the Internet, also proposed that Internet users be forced to declare their geographical location and to answer certain questions if they use key words such as "Nazi" in their searches. While Mr. Cerf expressed some philosophical reservations about the proposals, he admitted they were technically feasible. Gomez himself proposed that Nazi objects bought online should not be allowed to be shipped to France.
In his final ruling on Nov. 20, Gomez said Yahoo! had already prohibited the sale of human organs, cigarettes, live animals, drugs, and used underwear. "It would cost the company very little to extend those bans to Nazi symbols," he wrote. "Such an initiative would have the merit of satisfying an ethical and moral standard shared by all democratic societies."
Whether or not it wants to admit it, the message from Paris seems to have been heard halfway around the world in Santa Clara.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society