Should the Net Recognize National Boundaries?

The effort by the French government to keep its citizens from viewing Nazi-related material on a U.S. online auction site is intriguing for several reasons, but mainly because of the sensitive questions of national character and consciousness that the controversy raises.

A French judge recently ordered Yahoo!, Inc. to find a way to prevent French Internet surfers from accessing the company’s U.S. site, where SS helmets, swastikas and other gruesome Nazi souvenirs from the days of the Third Reich are offered on the auction block.

The question from an e-commerce standpoint is this: 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?

Larger Moral Question

The answer to that one is easy: No. France can impose laws on its own citizens, but it cannot hold a foreign company responsible for what French citizens may or may not do.

But there is a much tougher question involved in this story. Much, much tougher. The larger, moral question at the heart of the case is this: Does the purchase, sale — or possession, for that matter — of items connected to the most murderous regime in history constitute a crime in and of itself?

Tokens of Vigilance

Yahoo! attorneys say it does not. Nazi items are historical artifacts — evidence of the cruelty and mistakes of the past. They are constant reminders that we must never let a Holocaust happen again. They are tokens of vigilance.

Yahoo! claims that banning such items on the Internet could hinder free speech and hamper legitimate historical research. Yahoo! has a vested financial interest, of course, but the company’s explanation echoes an essentially American point of view. Possession of such material is legal in the United States.

However, to the French and Germans, dissemination of Nazi memorabilia is a hate crime, and they have laws against it.

Collective Guilt?

Here is the intriguing part of the debate: Is it possible that a sense of national shame over France’s part in the Second World War has given rise to the law concerning Nazi memorabilia?

In Germany’s case, it is easy to understand how such a law could be enacted with no public debate. But the shadings are more subtle in France, where the Underground fought valiantly against collaborationists.

Is it possible that a collective guilty conscience can worm its way into the governance of a country? If so, is there such a thing as a national psychiatrist?

Germany Capitulates to Internet

It is interesting to note that Germany has given up trying to block access to foreign, neo-Nazi Web sites. “That’s life and that’s the Internet and you can’t change it,” Deputy Interior Minister Brigitte Zypries told reporters. “You can’t build a wall around Germany.”

Germany is acting more sensibly, even though the country has more reason to be sensitive than France. Germany has been plagued for years by increasing violence from right wing extremists, although only a relative few call themselves “Nazis.” Still, a government study showed a 10 percent rise in 1999 in the number of far right extremists deemed violent.

A More Workable Law

Of course, it is morally wrong for anyone to profit from the misfortunes of others, and the motivations for some who traffic in swastikas, SS helmets and other imagery of the Third Reich are questionable, to say the least.

But in its effort to screen hatred from the Internet, France is misguided, despite the noble intent of the two anti-racism groups who filed the lawsuit. I cannot pretend to get inside the head of a Holocaust survivor or even to understand the emotional fallout experienced by a French citizen who lived through WWII.

But I suggest that the country could enact a better, more workable law to accomplish its purpose — one that would outlaw the use of Nazi materials in any manner that could encourage racial or ethnic prejudice, erode the dignity of minorities, or cause further harm to those still suffering from the atrocities committed by the Third Reich. Such a law would at least have a chance, because it could be enforced within a nation’s boundaries.

By prosecuting offenders who make their evil intentions known, the French government could respect the needs of legitimate historians while reinforcing its “no tolerance” attitude toward crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, just as there is no France on the Internet, there is also no hell — even if that is where the hate-peddlers belong.

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