Nazi memorabilia case fuels onlinefree speech debate

Civil liberties groups continued to battle against a case that they say could curtail free speech on the Internet by imposing...

Civil liberties groups continued to battle against a case that they say could curtail free speech on the Internet by imposing regional restrictions on global content.

The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and a handful of other rights organisations filed a brief on Monday asking a California court to deny an appeal in a two-year-old case between Yahoo! and two French non-profit groups dedicated to eliminating anti-Semitism.

The International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism and the Union of French Jewish Students originally took Yahoo! to court in France, asking that the Internet company be restricted from allowing French citizens to bid for Nazi memorabilia auctioned on its sites. The groups cited a French law that makes it illegal to exhibit or sell objects that have racist overtones.

In November 2000, the French court ordered Yahoo! to prevent local users from linking to Web sites with Nazi memorabilia.

Yahoo! then brought the case to California, asking the US District Court for a summary judgment against the order. Last November the court granted Yahoo! the judgment, claiming that the French had no grounds for regulating constitutionally protected free speech.

Shortly after the court's verdict, the French parties appealed on technical grounds, claiming that the California court did not have jurisdiction over the case.

John Morris, staff counsel for the CDT, called the plaintiffs' claim "extreme" that a French court could address a US company but that a US court could not get involved in the situation.

"Besides, their appeals papers are absolutely silent on the substantive ruling," Morris said, referring to the California court's finding that Yahoo! was protected under First Amendment free speech rights.

The case is being lodged against Yahoo!'s US subsidiary, since its French division and site already complies with French law, Morris explained. Therefore, he insisted, the US division should be wholly protected by the Constitution's free speech rights.

Civil liberties groups fear that it the appeal is won, the case will set a precedent that allows for local laws to stifle global online speech.

"To open the door to foreign restrictions on US speakers [by] even the slightest crack would allow numerous restrictions on speech that would never be permitted if initiated in this country and would undermine First Amendment protections to Internet speech," the groups wrote in their brief.

"This case is very, very important," said Morris. "If what the French court did was upheld, US companies would have to look to comply to the censorship laws of 200 countries around the world. It would be an untenable situation."

The case continues.

Read more on IT legislation and regulation