Yahoo! Can Censor Auctions, Experts Say

A trio of experts, led by “Father of the Internet” Vinton Cerf, told a French judge Monday that it is technologically possible for Internet powerhouse Yahoo! to block French users from U.S.-based online auctions of Nazi memorabilia.

Saying that 70 to 80 percent of French Web users can be identified through their Internet protocol (IP) address, the expert panel proposed a filtering system that would bar users with France-based IP addresses from accessing auctions whose descriptions contain previously defined keywords.

“It’s very simple to filter a query containing key words, such as ‘Nazi,’ if users are identified as coming from France,” panel member Francois Wallon, a French legal expert, told the court.

However, Cerf, who was instrumental in designing the Internet’s architecture when he worked on the ARPANET, noted that the proposed blocking system is not foolproof and would be “a slippery slope.”

When in France

In May, the French court ordered Yahoo! to block Internet users in France from accessing the auctions, but later asked the panel of experts to determine if blocking was feasible.

The suit against Yahoo! was filed in April by the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA), the Movement Against Racism (MRAP) and the Union of French Law Students (UEFJ). The lawsuit charged Yahoo! with illegally hosting auctions that amounted to a “banalizing of Nazism.”

Selling or displaying any items that incite racism, including Nazi artifacts, is illegal in France. No such items are offered on Yahoo’s French auction site, but French users are able to access Yahoo’s U.S.-based auction site, where sales of Nazi memorabilia are allowed.

The court plans to issue a new ruling on the blocking issue on November 20th.

Who Governs the Internet?

Technology issues aside, at the heart of the matter is the question of who rules the Internet. Yahoo! contends that if the French court is allowed to dictate the content of a U.S.-based Web site, havoc will ensue.

“Imagine that we would decide to implement what’s being asked of us,” said Phillippe Guillanton, Yahoo’s chief executive in France. “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 debate has prompted the Clinton administration to propose a plan that it says would eliminate e-commerce trade barriers and ensure fair competition in the rapidly evolving e-commerce sector.

“This new initiative will create a lasting set of rules and agreements which help to ensure that the trading system provides for electronic business the same guarantees of freedom, fair competition, respect for intellectual property rights and access to markets that more conventional commerce enjoys,” U.S. trade representative Charlene Barshefsky told the Federal Communications Bar Association in Washington, D.C. last month.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has also called for global guidelines to govern cross-border e-commerce. The FTC has proposed that procedures be adopted for deciding which laws apply to international e-commerce transactions.

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