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November 25: In what is seen as a historic decision by many people, a civil judge in Paris has ordered Yahoo! Inc., a leading American web company, to block out from its sites any reference to Nazi associated saleable items to people who log in from France. The Nazis under Adolf Hitler, perpetrated a reign of terror against Jews in the 1930s and 1940s and France suffered greatly under Hitler’s rule.

The Borders of the Internet
The Borders of the Internet [Illustration by Shiju George]
Well you thought the World Wide Web has no borders, huh? And you could put up anything on the Internet, and rest assured that it would be accessed by millions of people across the world. After all, you insist, it is this quality that makes the Net so democratic, i.e., by relating to the broadest mass of people.

Well…not quite. The web can entangle you if you are not careful.

Experts say that the French court’s ruling could set a precedent on how far a country can go to enforce its local laws across the theoretically borderless and seamless Web. A report debating this issue appeared in the ‘International Herald Tribune’, and was carried in the ‘Asian Age’.

Yahoo! is one of the most popular search engines in the Internet and even though the computers, content and even the company Yahoo! Itself, are physically located in the United States, Yahoo! will have to ensure that its French subsidiary, Yahoo.fr, has no Nazi items for sale, such as a swastika T-shirt or even a print of a watercolour painted by Adolf Hitler.

This is not the first time that the ‘uncharted’ nature of the Web has caused problems to Internet companies. Amazon.com Inc., a popular online bookstore, banned the German-language text of Mein Kampf, written by Adolf Hitler that details a hate campaign against the Jews. The book is banned in Germany.

However, Germans wanting to buy the book could do so and still not fall foul of the law. How? By buying the English-language version, which was not officially banned. So you have the peculiar situation of a book (Mein Kampf) topping a best-selling list (Amazon’s) in the very country where it is banned (Germany)!

It is to avoid this and similar confusing scenarios, that the new ruling was made. Not surprisingly, Yahoo!’s representatives are having a problem with it. “This throws up the question of whether one country has the right to impose its rules on companies in another country,” Sue Jackson, Yahoo! Europe spokesperson, says.

So a students’ group, the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, sued Sue Jackson. Well, no not exactly, they sued Yahoo!. The judge’s original order was delayed when Yahoo! argued that it was impossible to know to which country the users, who accessed its American sites, belonged.

Expert advice was sought, which said that technology could reveal a user’s location. The judge affirmed his order and gave Yahoo! three months to put such a system in place.

So how successful is the ruling? Some say that it resolves the question of borders on the Internet. Others are not so hopeful. They say that the international consequences of this ruling are not clear.

US e-businesses (online businesses) in particular, are still protected at home by the guarantee of free speech that the American Constitution grants them. The origin of a good deal of neo-Nazi ideas on the Internet is American, as a result.