French Wrench

By eweek  |  Posted 2001-01-15

Its probably bad enough to the French that the Web site is called Yahoo! Such a quintessentially American word, a lexical 10-gallon hat, the semantic equivalent of "McDonalds."

But its not the gauche name they are after. Its what has been for sale on the Web site: Nazi memorabilia. You can buy the stuff on Yahoo!s auction site. This is OK in America, but its not so OK in France and Germany, for example.

France shrugged its shoulders, rolled its eyes, pursed its lips and said, "Pfffff. You Americans cannot sell this Nazi trash in France."

Yahoo! said, "Heck, Frenchie, hold on a minute here, heh heh, you sure about this? I mean, weve got laws in the good ol U.S. of A., laws that protect free speech. This here is free speech. My company is American. Not sure how you can do this."

France: "OK, G.I. Joe, you go on your way selling this barbaric garbage, and well just see what happens, no? We have laws, too, yes?"

Yahoo! backed down. The site has agreed to stop selling Nazi memorabilia, as well as other "items that are associated with groups deemed to promote or glorify hatred and violence," a company statement said.

Free-speech advocates wondered what sort of precedent this would set. If every country could eliminate goods for sale on Web sites — or by extension, ideas for publication — what does this mean for the international frontier of the World Wide Web? Does this mark the beginning of the end of the Web as a relatively rule-free, free-speech mosh pit?

I think France had every right to issue its order. As for Yahoo!s decision to stop selling the memorabilia, Im not so sure.

What the duel reveals is the American sanctification of free speech and the rest of the worlds less reverential stance on the subject. Germans, for example, hold personal privacy in much higher esteem than Americans, but the German embrace of free speech is less amorous. Should American companies be able to ignore German privacy laws? Should Americans break French laws against trading Nazi memorabilia?

This leads to the question of whether Yahoo! is "in" France, which leads to the ultimate Information Age question: Is cyberspace a "place"?

Since Yahoo! opted against slugging it out in court, this skirmish wont figure into the legal war about whether old laws meant for brick-and-mortars apply to the Web, or if new laws for a new place are needed. For now, the answers to these questions can be summed up with a casual shoulder shrug, French style.

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