French Courts Tackle Nazism On The Net

Last week two lower-level French courts issued path-breaking decisions on the question of how--and whether--to regulate Internet content. But the paths lead in different directions.

In Paris, Judge Jean-Jacques Gomez sided with the League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, which filed a complaint against Yahoo for posting Nazi memorabilia on its auction site. It didn't matter that the site's French version had filtered out the 1,000 or so objects on sale, which included a $50 replica of a Zyklon-B gas can; French users could still visit the U.S. site. Citing a French law banning anything that "incites racial hatred," Gomez fined Yahoo $3,000 for "offend[ing] the collective memory of [France]." He told the company to block access to the U.S. auctions by July 24.

Look for Yahoo to appeal the verdict. "The question is whether a French judge can adjudicate on the content of an American site, run by an American company and subject to American law, just because French users have access to it," said Christophe Pecnard, one of Yahoo's lawyers. Judge Gomez answers yes. "For too long, we've acted as if the Internet has been a place where nothing is forbidden," he told NEWSWEEK. "Not everything is permitted, not everything is legal."

Perhaps. But two days later Judge Raguin in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre ruled that Multimania couldn't be compelled to tighten up its controls, despite complaints about a neo-Nazi site that opened on its servers earlier this year. The company had shut down the site, but didn't want to change its procedures. That decision, too, is likely to be appealed.