Yahoo! ordered to block French users from Nazi sites

Human rights groups welcome Paris ruling

National Post
November 21, 2000
By: Carl Honoré

LONDON - In a landmark ruling that takes the first step toward imposing national boundaries on the Internet, a French judge yesterday ordered Yahoo!, the U.S. Internet portal, to block French users from visiting Web sites selling Nazi memorabilia.

The ruling, delivered in a packed courtroom in Paris, was welcomed by human rights groups that see cyberspace as a platform for hate-mongering.

But Yahoo! and other Internet companies said the French decision set a legal precedent that threatened the future of the freewheeling World Wide Web.

"The importance of today's ruling is that all Web sites, no matter where they are, are now subject to the laws and social norms of all other countries in the world," said Sue Jackson, a spokeswoman for Yahoo!. "We believe this will have a chilling effect on the Internet."

Yesterday's ruling was the latest skirmish in a battle over the future of cyberspace. Many people think the Internet will atrophy if it loses its U.S.-inspired, anything-goes ethos. But others want to tame the global medium, bringing it into line with more conservative laws and sensibilities in other countries.

The French court case began in April, when two French human rights groups asked a judge to force Yahoo! to bar French surfers from its U.S.-based Nazi auction sites.

French law prohibits the sale or display of anything that promotes racial hatred, so Nazi items were never listed on the France-based Yahoo! site. But French surfers could still simply hop on to the company's U.S. auction site, which sells everything from swastika armbands to Hitler mousepads.

Yahoo! argued its U.S. sites were not subject to French laws and it was technologically impossible to wall off users in one country from sites in another.

Judge Jean-Jacques Gomez swept those arguments aside yesterday. A panel of three computer experts told the French court on Nov. 6 that a combination of "filtering solutions" could prevent 90% of French users from accessing English-language sites selling Nazi items.

In his ruling, Judge Gomez ordered Yahoo! to screen Internet service provider addresses and keyword-searches to identify and bar French users from its "illegal" auction sites. Any site listing Nazi items, the judge said, should also carry a page asking users to declare they are not French citizens.

Judge Gomez gave the company three months to comply with his ruling, or face a daily fine of $20,000.

The French decision sent a shiver through the Internet world. Many fear it will inspire courts in other countries to try to force businesses to police their own online content and comply with local laws. Critics said that would send costs spiralling and hold back the development of the Internet.

Elsewhere, other Web companies have already fallen afoul of local laws.

Last November, Amazon.com, the online book retailer, stopped shipping Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf to shoppers in Germany after critics pointed out German law forbids all hate literature.

Yahoo!, which deployed a 40-member legal team in the French court case, plans to review yesterday's ruling before announcing its next step. Yet the options open to the company are clear.

It can launch an appeal through the French courts, or it can ask a U.S. court to declare the French ruling unenforceable on U.S. companies.