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Web worries over French site ban
A landmark ruling in France ordering Yahoo! to prevent French users from accessing sites selling Nazi memorabilia has raised fresh challenges for companies struggling with the laws of cyberspace.
Web sites must now be wary of finding themselves liable to the laws of the land in all the countries able to access the material it publishes.
The Internet industry fears the judgement could lead to a wider censorship of the World Wide Web by national governments.
Yahoo! France Managing Director Philippe Guillanton said the ruling ran against the international nature of the World Wide Web.
And Yahoo!'s Sue Jackson said: "It is obviously our concern. The implication of the ruling is that, regardless of location, all Websites could become subject to the (local) laws and social norms of all the countries around the world."
"Clearly we believe this would have a chilling effect on the growth of the Internet.
"There are more than 180 countries in the world and if every Internet company in the world has to abide the laws of each of those countries, it is obvious how stifling that would be."
Nicholas Landsman, of Britain's Internet Service Providers Association, said the French ruling would provide conflict where material considered legal and acceptable in one country is accessible from another nation where that same material is unacceptable.
In the Yahoo! France case the court ordered the French arm of Yahoo! to prevent access to sites on the U.S. arm, which sell Nazi memorabilia.
French law bans the sale of objects with racist overtones but the U.S. has no similar legislation -- and the country's first ammendment guaranteeing freedom of speech would almost certainly prevent such a law being introduced.
Landsman said the French legal decision was "a road we hope no other country goes down."
It is not just Yahoo! that need to be vigilant. CNN business reporter Diana Muriel said companies like bookseller Amazon.com and online auctioneers would have to take extra care that the items they sell do not infringe French law.
The ruling will also hit companies like Website designer Bluewave, which must now advise clients of the risks associated with operating in France.
Bluewave's chief executive officer Richard Latham told CNN that the introduction of restrictions on the Internet are a major cause of concern.
He said: "The Internet is a representation of the real world, the good, the bad, and the mediocre. That's the way the Internet has developed and the way it could succeed.
"But we really have to see how it is going to succeed before individual governments start passing laws about what can or cannot be on the Internet."
Lawyers are also concerned that the ruling has wider implications for the Internet. Kiran Sandford, of legal firm Taylor Joynson Garrett told CNN it sets a "very dangerous precedent."
She said: "A lot of people have got sympathy with blocking access to Nazi memorabilia but there may be a lot of other regimes around the world which try to block access to all sorts of other information."
The French case against Yahoo! has turned on the issues of whether an Internet service provider (ISP) or portal is liable for distributing illegal material, and whether it should or could block access to that content.
Opinions worldwide are split between those wanting to uphold the freedom of Internet speech at all costs, and those trying to find compromises that respect the open nature of the web while protecting vulnerable people.
The laws of the Internet are still evolving in most countries, but the European Commission enshrined its approach with a little-noticed directive that came into force on July 17.
The Electronic Commerce Directive states that a company storing Websites on its computers -- a business known as hosting -- is not liable for distributing illegal material if it is not aware of its existence.
"But if you become aware that information is illegal you must immediately remove it or bar access," said Mike Rebeiro, an e-commerce lawyer at Norton Rose in London.
The possible implications of the directive are already being felt in Britain, where a similar law was tested in March. ISP Demon settled out of court with a man who said messages posted anonymously on its online bulletin board defamed him.
The impact of the case, said Rebeiro, has been that ISPs are now quickly removing contentious material rather than running the risk of involvement in long legal debates.
Other countries have taken the opposite approach. The U.S. has ruled that an ISP is not responsible for defamatory messages.
And Germany took a similar stance last November, when a court overturned a conviction against the local head of CompuServe -- now part of America Online Inc -- for failing to block access to bulletin boards featuring child pornography.
Germany has also decided that there is little it can do to stop its citizens accessing neo-Nazi web sites abroad, despite having some of the world's toughest racism laws.
Yahoo! anger at French Nazi auction ban
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