Yahoo's Nazi Ban Draws Free Speech Concerns
In the battle between U.S. Web portal Yahoo and the French courts banning Nazi gear, the Americans have quit the field.
Yahoo will prohibit Nazi memorabilia from being sold on its commerce
sites, along with Ku Klux Klan memorabilia and other items "associated with
groups which promote or glorify hatred and violence," beginning January 10. A
Yahoo spokesperson denies that impending
"We're trying to improve the quality of the site, and these items have been detracting from the quality," says Brian Fitzgerald, senior producer for Yahoo auctions. "It's important to note that the policy is not in response to the ruling."
It's not clear, either to Fitzgerald or to other observers, whether the policy change effectively complies with a French court ruling ordering Yahoo to prevent users in France from accessing U.S. sites where banned Nazi items are sold. The court has said it will fine Yahoo about $14,000 for each day it exceeds the order's February deadline.
German authorities have also
The long-term legal and free-speech consequences of Yahoo's withdrawal
remain unclear, said Donna Hoffman, a management professor at Vanderbilt
University and a policy fellow with the
"I don't think that there's any clear-cut trend here," she says. "Yahoo
is still fighting [the French ruling] in American courts. They haven't folded
their tents." She says the controversy must be resolved at the national level,
In Europe, free-speech advocates warn of a dangerous precedent if local laws on Web content are enforced worldwide.
"If you're going to talk about tens and tens of governments, all with their own rules and their own wishes towards foreign services, you will get a completely unworkable situation," says Maurice Wessling, director of the Amsterdam-based human-rights group Bits of Freedom.
"You would get the Chinese government having requirements about critical sites or critical material or maybe certain books that are sold at certain online shops," Wessling says. "You would have the Saudi government complaining about certain sites which are religious or which deal with explicit material."
But others see the clean-up of Web content as a healthy trend.
"As in any new medium, the first driving force is pornography and slightly dodgy content; once things become mainstream, all this sort of activity can be dropped and we can move on," says Alistair Kelman, e-commerce counsel at Telepathic Industries, a London consulting company.
There's little danger of governments restricting Web freedom outside their borders, as long as the United States remains the "umbrella" power influencing the Web, Kelman says.
"I don't think we seriously have to worry about free speech, because America is leading the way on this one," Kelman adds. "Unless a more authoritarian government came in, then I would be worried."