Don’t Roll Your Eyes at the French This Time: What the French Ruling Against Yahoo Means for the Internet Masses

Any Internet business planning to expand beyond the U.S. border cannot afford to ignore the French’s court’s latest ruling against Yahoo. And those that only dream about international expansion but believe in the freedom of the Net should take note.

Any Internet business planning to expand beyond the U.S. border cannot afford to ignore the French’s court’s latest ruling against Yahoo. And those that only dream about international expansion but believe in the freedom of the Net should take note.

A French judge ruled this week that Yahoo’s American website must comply with French laws that ban racist speech even though Yahoo.fr is already in line with those laws. Two French anti-racism groups, which filed the suit against Yahoo earlier this year, believe French people should not be allowed to access Yahoo.com auctions, which include sales of Hitler and Nazi memorabilia and documents, or any American Yahoo site with Nazi information.

In May, Judge Jean-Jacques Gomez decided Yahoo was liable, but postponed his order to see if filtering users based on their citizenship was feasible with current technology. It’s not easy or efficient-the expert panel said filtering would work 70 percent of the time-but it can be done. And so, as of the ruling this Monday, Yahoo has three months to install a keyword-based filtering system to block French citizens from accessing any Yahoo site with Nazi material. The consequence if it doesn’t: fines of more than 100,000 francs (nearly $13,000) per day.

Ebay has already agreed to use a keyword filter and probably won’t get sued. In a similar situation, Amazon last year stopped selling English translations of Hitler’s Mein Kampf to German citizens following local pressure.

The Yahoo case is more than just another case of those crazy French government mandarins run amok, the ones who want to call e-mail courrier electronique and start-ups jeunes pousses. In fact, the ruling’s implications extend far beyond France’s borders, as many have already pointed out. “The worry is more repressive regimes will use this case as a precedent for their activity,” British lawyer Jonathan Armstrong told the Wall Street Journal.

And while Yahoo will certainly appeal the decision, with a resolution possibly years away, one of France’s top technology policy thinkers shared his thoughts on the Yahoo case and what it might portend for the future. Bernard Benhamou, a professor at the elite Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, believes a global discussion is needed about the very local ruling that happened this week. Excerpts from the interview follow.

“[These] kinds of decisions, rulings, can be interpreted as the beginning of an ID card on the Web, possibly to identify people wherever they are and to create a new kind of identification on the Internet. And that is something that can be very disturbing in the long run.

“Even now, there is a cultural shock between Europeans and Americans on freedom of speech. In France we do have rules, regulations and laws that prevent such kind of content to be distributed on the Internet.

“[Freedom of speech] is important to American people, I understand it. At one time, I thought we could have a kind of collision between those two rules. We are deeply rooted in France on those issues. And what we say about Americans, about religion and content, about World War II, the Holocaust, the Shoah [is that] they don’t know what it’s like to be invaded on their ground, so to prevent some kind of content to be distributed, they don’t have the same view.

“The fact is that we can also be pushed to go too far in the reshaping of the Internet…If we act too harshly, too drastically, and we take drastic measures on the Internet itself, something that can modify the architecture of the Web and the Internet itself, that is dangerous in the long run.

“…We [the French] wanted to have an international opinion [on the Yahoo case], not just French. The ruling was very cautious, very prudent about the consequences of this ruling. At first he [Judge Jean-Jacques Gomez] was thinking it was a very small case. But he began to be aware after a time that it would be an international one with global repercussions, not just local ones.

“The first [repercussion] is the idea of the users, that they first need to be declared, that in the long run there will be a passport for Internet users. That can be a real problem of a system. The nature of the Internet itself could be changed.

“The other one is the global technical problem it can create. And if it can be solved by a technical solution, it can be dangerous.

“…A few years before, Americans and Europeans had a fight about the way to deal with cultural content. Americans were saying cultural content was also a commodity like every other commodity. We believed and we believe cultural cinema and literature don’t have to be treated the same way as food or industry goods. And so we have a differing of opinion, which was cultural and historical…We do not have the same history, same culture. We don’t want people…to spread such kinds of content. It’s logical because we know what kind of consequences it can have on public opinion.

“In this [way], I understand the judge. [However] the way he acted on it, the way he wanted the company to give IDs…this can be dangerous in the long run.

“…For them [anti-racism groups] it’s a victory, but they don’t want to analyze the global picture. It’s their own local victory, not a global victory for the future of the Internet itself.

“[Answers question if a compromise that satisfies both sides is possible today]. I don’t think so…The problem is there will be a need for a global, international discussion about those subjects, but now it’s only local….What I think, what I hope, is that such kinds of issues, problems, cases can bring people to the same table. Like in the past, there have been international regulations….But we need to have international discussions, maybe the U.N., maybe [involving] other places. There is a need for a global discussion, not only a local one.”

Author: Kirin Kalia

News Service: Silicon Alley Daily

URL: http://www.siliconalleydaily.com/issues/sar11232000.html#Headline6975