One World, One Internet?

Naively believing that the Internet should remain “free,” more than one observer has argued that the Web should not be subject to the laws of individual countries around the world.

In the high-profile case against Yahoo! over the illegal auctions of Nazi memorabilia in France, for example, many people are saying that Yahoo! is in the right.

One writer recently asked, “Can any one country impose its laws on the Internet — that amorphous global network that is leading us into a brave new economic world? Or, to put it another way: Is there a France on the Internet?”

The better question: “Is there an Internet in France?”

Yes, there is, and when in France, e-commerce companies should do as the French do. If the laws of individual countries are not applied to Internet transactions — and other international activities of multinational corporations — the right of individuals and localities to govern themselves will be severely compromised.

Impossible Dream

Because the sale of Nazi artifacts is illegal in France, the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA), the Movement Against Racism (MRAP) and the Union of French Law Students (UEFJ) sued Yahoo! and demanded that the portal filter French Web surfers from its U.S.-based auction site, which allows the sale of Nazi items.

After ordering Yahoo! to “make it impossible” for residents of France to access Yahoo! auctions of Nazi paraphernalia before the end of July, the French court extended the deadline and asked a panel of Internet experts to find a way to bar Internet users in France from accessing the auctions.

The experts have until mid-October to come up with a means to do so.

Yahoo! has added warnings to some of its pages, notifying French visitors that they risk breaking French law by viewing them. However, the giant portal maintains that the Web is borderless, and that it is technically impossible to block the French from gaining access to the Nazi auctions.

While hanging their hat on the technical excuse, Yahoo! attorneys have emphasized that the case is about the broader issue of whether one country can regulate the content of the Internet in another country.

One Internet, Many Countries

The question is really whether a government can regulate the content of the Internet within its own country. When a global e-commerce company such as Yahoo! enters France, it should respect local law and find the most technologically advanced way to do it — even if a few French surfers are able to break through the wall.

Freedom does not start with allowing businesses to do whatever they want on the global telecommunications network. Freedom starts with individual rights, including the right of small communities to say what is allowed in their geographic area. The free-thinkers of the environmental movement got it right when they said, “Think globally, but act locally.”

In other words, acknowledge that there is one planet, but take care of that planet by looking after the particular places — the corner store, the neighborhood trees, your own backyard.

Same thing goes for the one Internet and many countries. By applying national laws everywhere the Web goes, the result will be an Internet everyone will want to surf.

Freedom, Just Another Word

If the environmentalist view does not persuade, take a look at the structure of the U.S. government. The United States is a federal system, which means that the rights of individuals in the separate states to govern themselves is respected.

The federal government can regulate national issues, but it cannot tell the states what to do about local issues, such as divorce, car accidents, crime and community values. For that reason, people in California can get divorced for no reason at all, while in more traditional states like New York, the complaining party has to establish a valid ground for divorce.

Do the people of Hawaii and Iowa and Tennessee want Uncle Sam to dictate a uniform standard of behavior for all of the citizens of various states? Instead of one-law-fits-all, when there’s a transaction between the citizens of different states, the courts apply a series of tests to determine which state’s law should apply.

A similar series of tests is needed for regulating Web content and e-commerce travelling across international borders. In the U.S., though many people are offended by Nazi paraphernalia sales, the prevailing view is that free speech should be allowed, even if offensive.

Should French standards apply in the U.S.? Not any more than U.S. law should apply in France.

Borderlines and Connections

The Internet is not a stepping stone for eliminating national laws. If the Internet becomes the path to adopting a single set of global laws, that one law book will dictate how 6 billion different people should live, instead of those people deciding for themselves.

It remains to be seen what the experts in the Yahoo! case come up with, but ultimately the attempt should be made to comply with French law when in France.

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