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Yahoo! Rejects French Authority in Nazi Dispute

By Nora Macaluso
Dec 22, 2000 4:24 PM PT

Yahoo! Inc. on Thursday filed documents in U.S. federal court declaring that the French government has no right to make the company bar French residents from seeing auctions of Nazi paraphernalia over its U.S.-based Web site.

Yahoo! Rejects French Authority in Nazi Dispute

The declaratory judgment, filed in San Jose, California, asks the court to concur that the French government has no jurisdiction over Yahoo's operations, and that any order would violate the U.S. Constitution, said Greg Wrenn, associate general counsel at Yahoo!.

The filing adds fuel to the debate over who, if anyone, regulates the Internet. While some experts see the Web as a forum for the free exchange of ideas, others have actively called for control and limitations.

French Ruling

Last month, a French court gave Yahoo! 90 days to block French residents from viewing its Nazi memorabilia auctions, or face fines of US$13,000 each day. Judge Jean-Jacques Gomez's ruling reaffirmed an order issued on May 22nd ordering Yahoo! to ban French residents from U.S.-based online auctions of Nazi memorabilia.

Gomez, of the Paris Tribunal de Grande, had delayed enforcing the May order while a panel of experts determined whether it would be technologically feasible to bar French users from the auctions. When the panel, led by Internet expert Vinton Cerf, said a filtering system could be used that would block people with France-based Internet addresses from seeing auctions containing certain keywords, the judge let the order go through.

Selling or displaying items that promote racism is illegal in France. While Nazi items are not offered on Yahoo's French site, users are able to access the company's U.S. site.

Options Open

Yahoo! is still looking at other options, such as appealing the order in France and "making some effort to comply" with the order or otherwise address the French government's concerns, Wrenn told the E-Commerce Times. "We're still looking at these issues, and working at the highest levels" to address them, he said.

Wrenn said Yahoo! has about three months before the French fines take effect, and wanted to "expedite" the U.S. court process. "The outcome we hope and expect" will be that the U.S. court will find that it cannot enforce the French order, he said.

In April, the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA), the Movement Against Racism (MRAP) and the Union of French Law Students (UEFJ) sued Yahoo!, saying its auctions were illegal.

No Borders

Yahoo! has argued that the Web knows no borders, and that screening out words such as "Nazi" on search engines would hinder free speech and hamper legitimate research.

Company co-founder Jerry Yang in June told a French newspaper that the site would not be altered to comply with non-U.S. laws. The company, however, did add warnings to some pages notifying French users that they risked breaking their country's laws by viewing them.

Yahoo! France chief executive Phillippe Guillanton said in July that complying with the French court's request would set a dangerous precedent. "Imagine that we would decide to implement what's being asked of us," he said. "Tomorrow, a judge from any country could come to a Web publisher from any other country and ask them to pull down such and such because it's unacceptable in that country."

The Yahoo! case is not the first to draw attention for making controversial material available to Internet users worldwide. Amazon.com stopped selling Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" in Germany after the government there objected.

Even in the U.S., some activists are lobbying Yahoo! to end its Nazi-ware auctions. BiasHELP, an anti-hate group based in Huntington, New York, has asked the Web giant to stop accepting Nazi- or Ku Klux Klan-related items for sale over its site.


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