What they said about online sale of Nazi memorabilia

The ongoing saga of Yahoo! and the sale of Nazi memorabilia on its Web site hit the news again this month as a US Federal judge...

The ongoing saga of Yahoo! and the sale of Nazi memorabilia on its Web site hit the news again this month as a US Federal judge found that the November 2000 ruling in the US and French courts, which forced Yahoo! to bar access to the offending part of the site, was a violation of the US constitution and freedom of expression.

The French Government had invoked its anti-hate laws and demanded the company blocked access or risk fines of up to $13,000 a day. At stake was the issue of freedom of speech on the internet and the consequences of a Government in one country governing the activities of a company based in another. Following the ruling, Yahoo! removed thousands of the offending items from its site in what it claimed was an unrelated move. But now that original ruling has been overturned.

Looking at the wider picture, The Register said: "Perhaps it was inevitable that judges in different countries would clash at some point, not thinking of the wider implications of their decisions but their own parochial concerns." In The Register's view, "this is a battle not for justice but between judicial systems. It has been a disaster waiting to happen ever since the three experts - one of which was the current head of ICANN Vint Cerf - told the judge that a ban of Internet users from one particular country was possible."

But it couldn't resist a passing comment on the cause for the jubilation expressed by one of Yahoo!'s lawyers, Mary Catherine Worth. Her mirth, it conjectured, was due in no small part to the fact that the decision would keep the legal profession busy for the next decade. Surely not.

The gravitas of the case was not lost on the Financial Times, which described the Yahoo! case as "the first big case to test a question crucial to the future of the Internet and electronic commerce". The FT said the ruling by Judge Fogel had "thrown into sharp relief the problem of governing cyberspace" and had, in effect, extended US free speech rights to Internet sites - even if they are visible in countries with very different traditions regarding speech.

"The case highlights the inevitable tensions involved in regulating cyberspace, given that activities that are legal in one country could be illegal in another, while the Internet is in both," The FT concluded. It also predicted that the decision would raise the question of whose laws apply and how they can be enforced in cross-border disputes.

Meanwhile, the Guardian was reporting on how civil liberties campaigners had welcomed the overturning of last November's ruling, which had seemed at the time like "yet another nail in the coffin for Web freedom". Summing up, the paper gushed: "In practice, the judgement might mean little to Yahoo! - the company is not expected to allow Nazi memorabilia dealers back on its site - but the principle means much more."

Meanwhile, The Times was not about to let the opportunity for a cheap pop at the woolly liberals go begging. Instead of commenting on the implications for the future regulation of the Internet, it quoted Tamara Quinn of City law firm Berwin Leighton. She said: "The 'free speech' argument is all very well, but what if it comes to a Taliban-sponsored site describing how to culture anthrax?" Well, indeed. Still, there's always the appeal. Looks like this one will run and run

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