French Yahoo! Battles Censorship

Friday, August 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PARIS (AP) — In a legal battle over who should be held responsible for online racism, a court called Friday for a team of experts to examine ways of blocking French Internet users from U.S. giant Yahoo!'s auction site.

A lawyer for Yahoo! called the judge's action ``reasonable.''

The case began in April, when two Paris-based human rights groups filed suit against Yahoo! for hosting auctions of Nazi objects, including Nazi medallions, swastika-emblazoned battle flags and other Third Reich paraphernalia.

In France it is illegal to sell or exhibit anything that incites racism, but the U.S. Constitution's protection of free speech allows the expression of racist or extremist ideas. Yahoo is based in Santa Clara, Calif.

Judge Jean-Jacques Gomez ruled in May that Yahoo!, owner of the world's most visited Web pages, had offended France's ``collective memory.'' He ordered the company to pay fines to the two human rights groups that sued — the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism and the Union of Jewish Students of France.

Gomez also ordered Yahoo! to find a way to block French users from the U.S.-based pages in question. On Friday, he put off any decisions on that matter and called for a team of three experts — one French, one American, and one European — to study ways to identify Web users by origin and filter French users from the site.

The experts will present their findings to the court on Nov. 6.

Christophe Pecnard, a lawyer for Yahoo!, said he thought the judge's action seemed ``reasonable.''

``The judge took into account our arguments,'' Pecnard said.

Gomez also decided on Friday not to order that Yahoo! be fined additionally for every day the disputed sites remained accessible from France.

Yahoo has pulled Third Reich paraphernalia from its French site — — in keeping with national laws. In a further step, the company recently added warnings, in French, to some pages of its U.S.-based site containing sensitive material, alerting French users they risk breaking French law by viewing them.

Yahoo's lawyers say it would be impossible to go further, arguing that it is not technically feasible to keep French users off disputed Web sites.

Countries have always been largely powerless to combat extremist Web pages that are stored on servers in other countries.

The battle has sparked fears that one nation's legal system could stretch its tentacles across national borders and put a stranglehold on laws in other countries.