Yahoo! Inc. on Thursday filed documents in U.S. federal court declaring that theFrench government has no right to make the company bar French residents from seeingauctions of Nazi paraphernalia over its U.S.-based Web site.
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 theInternet. While some experts see the Web as a forum for the free exchange of ideas, others have actively called forcontrol and limitations.
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 22ndordering Yahoo! to ban French residents from U.S.-based online auctions ofNazi memorabilia.
Gomez, of the Paris Tribunal de Grande, had delayed enforcing the May orderwhile a panel of experts determined whether it would be technologicallyfeasible to bar French users from the auctions. When the panel, led byInternet expert Vinton Cerf, said a filtering system could be used thatwould block people with France-based Internet addresses from seeing auctionscontaining certain keywords, the judge let the order go through.
Selling or displaying items that promote racism isillegal in France. While Nazi items are not offered on Yahoo’s French site,users are able to access the company’s U.S. site.
Yahoo! is still looking at other options, such as appealing the order inFrance and “making some effort to comply” with the order or otherwiseaddress the French government’s concerns, Wrenn told the E-Commerce Times.”We’re still looking at these issues, and working at the highest levels” toaddress them, he said.
Wrenn said Yahoo! has about three months before the French fines takeeffect, and wanted to “expedite” the U.S. court process. “The outcome wehope 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.
Yahoo! has argued that the Web knows no borders, and that screening outwords such as “Nazi” on search engines would hinder free speech and hamperlegitimate research.
Company co-founder Jerry Yang in June told a French newspaper that the sitewould not be altered to comply with non-U.S. laws. The company, however, didadd warnings to some pages notifying French users that they risked breakingtheir country’s laws by viewing them.
Yahoo! France chief executive Phillippe Guillanton said in July thatcomplying with the French court’s request would set a dangerous precedent.”Imagine that we would decide to implement what’s being asked of us,” hesaid. “Tomorrow, a judge from any country could come to a Web publisher fromany other country and ask them to pull down such and such because it’sunacceptable in that country.”
The Yahoo! case is not the first to draw attention for making controversialmaterial available to Internet users worldwide. Amazon.com stopped selling AdolfHitler’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 askedthe Web giant to stop accepting Nazi- or Ku Klux Klan-related items for saleover its site.