Yahoo cannot be forced to comply with French laws that ban the expression of pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic views, because doing so would violate its right to free expression under the First Amendment of the US Constitution, wrote Judge Jeremy Fogel of the US District Court for the Northern District of California, in an order of summary judgment.
Yahoo welcomed the judgment. "Judge Fogel's ruling ensures that content made available on US Web sites will be protected by the First Amendment regardless of where that content may be accessed. It does not need to comply with a patchwork of content restrictions devised by over 200 nations," Mary Catherine Wirth, Yahoo's international senior corporate counsel, said in a prepared statement.
Yahoo will not amend its policy regarding hate-related materials on its Yahoo Auctions site, according to the statement.
The suit, introduced last year by French groups that included an anti-racism and anti-Semitic group (La Ligue Contre le Racisme et l'Antisemitisme), charged that Yahoo was violating various French laws, including laws against selling Nazi memorabilia and denying the existence of the Holocaust. Ruling on the suit in May 2000, a French judge ordered Yahoo to find a way to prevent users in France from seeing the materials. The ruling was upheld in France in November 2000.
Yahoo argued it could not shield French users from the offensive content without removing it altogether.
Yahoo changed its auction policy in January 2001, banning the sale of hate-related merchandise, including Nazi memorabilia, but not books, magazines or films. As a result, the company was still in violation of French law.
The ruling breaks new ground in international Web commerce. US judges have ruled in the past regarding what companies based outside the US can offer, but not on what US Web companies can provide around the world.
Foreign governments are unlikely to feel bound by the ruling, though it may increase US-based Internet companies' awareness of international issues - possibly with an effect opposite to the direction of the ruling, said Yankee Group online services analyst Rob Lancaster.
"I hope it's taken seriously, and I hope it drives organisations to consider these things more seriously," Lancaster said.
Lancaster believes that an international body such as the World Wide Web Consortium should draw up an overall standard to cover these disputes.
"Some standards that are specific to the Internet need to be put in place for cases like this," he said. "An organisation that is based on the Internet and understands the properties of the Web should be the one to set the standards for major Web-based organisations to follow."