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Internet: Free Speech Advocates Decry French Yahoo Ruling

  • Julie Moffett

A recent court case in France involving a U.S.-based Internet company raises the issue of freedom of expression on the Internet and, at the same time, underscores strong differences in the U.S. and Europe over the issue of freedom of speech. In this first of two features on the issue, RFE/RL Washington correspondent Julie Moffett examines the French case against Internet company Yahoo, in which the company was accused of violating rules against inciting racism by displaying Nazi memorabilia on an online auction site.

In a second feature, our Munich correspondent looks at the situation in Germany, which has strong laws banning hate speech in the country but is now coming under pressure to regulate Internet content from abroad, especially from the United States.

Washington, 8 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. analysts who monitor free speech say they are concerned by recent a court case in France that seeks to regulate what may be sold over the Internet.

They say the case could set a precedent that jeopardizes freedom of speech.

The case in question involves U.S.-based Internet company Yahoo, which earlier made available Nazi-era memorabilia for sale over its website. The sale of Nazi or other hate-group items is forbidden in France where it is illegal for anyone to sell or display goods that incite racism.

Yahoo last year became the target of a French lawsuit by a rights group that alleged that, because the Nazi auction items could be accessed by French Internet users, the company was in violation of French law.

The dispute eventually led to a court ruling forcing the company to block access in France to the offending Internet sites or risk a fine of $13,000 a day if it did not comply.

Yahoo's lawyers initially claimed France had no jurisdiction in the case, but the company later issued a blanket ban on auction items containing symbols or materials associated with hate groups.

Company lawyers insist the ban has nothing to do with the French court ruling. Yahoo also says it will fight the ban in the United States, where it says freedom to display such memorabilia is protected by free speech provisions in the U.S. Constitution.

Adam Clayton Powell is vice president for technology and programs at the non-governmental organization Freedom Forum in Washington. He tells RFE/RL the case highlights differences in how nations view the issue of free speech.

He says in the United States, unlike in some European countries, the emphasis is not on restricting speech, but rather on encouraging more speech in an effort to combat what he calls "bad" or "insulting" speech:

"One of the founding fathers of the U.S. who helped write the Bill of Rights [of the U.S. Constitution] said: 'We are not protecting respectable speech, we are not protecting speech that is polite.' Because respectable and polite speech is usually accepted, you don't have to protect it. What we are protecting is people who are rude, who say things that others may not like, because -- and this is a crucial point here -- the solution to bad speech, the solution to speech which is not correct, the solution to speech which is insulting, is viewed [in the U.S.] as more speech. More speech is better speech."

In the United States, freedom of speech is a fiercely guarded right. It is explicitly protected by the first amendment of the Constitution, and has long been a cornerstone of U.S. law, culture, and politics.

Laws in some European countries, written in the light of the continent's recent history, take a different view. There the emphasis is more on restricting utterances that promote racial or ethnic hatred.

Free speech advocates have decried the French ruling. They say it creates a potentially dangerous legal precedent by giving one country the right to impose laws on Internet websites that are based in other nations. The British daily "Times" went so far as to call the ruling an attempt by France to "impose international censorship" on the Internet.

Powell says trying to hold the thousands if not millions of organizations on the Internet legally responsible for upholding laws around the world would have a chilling and chaotic effect on freedom of speech everywhere.

"I think most people in the world are not sympathetic to Nazism or Nazi causes. But there are other variations of this. As soon as France figures out how to do this or Yahoo figures out how to block certain things for France, you know that other countries that are not necessarily democracies are going to come right behind them and say, 'All right, we don't want to have any criticisms of our government anywhere in our country.'"

Those supporting the decision, on the other hand, say France has a legal right as a sovereign country to determine what materials can or cannot be accessed from its own soil, including those on the Internet.

Internet experts say in any case the decentralized nature of the Internet -- where data and pictures can be stored on computers anywhere in the world and can be accessed easily over telephone lines -- makes it difficult to develop an international legal code for the worldwide computer network. The European Union is currently attempting to draft such a code, but experts are skeptical it can work.

Powell says that, in a worse-case scenario, efforts to block the Internet might severely limit freedom of speech and set a dangerous precedent for democracy.

"When you consider that for true democratic debate and dialogue, you have to have people who are willing to step forward and say things that are not only dissenting but sometimes very vigorously dissenting."

The French-based organization Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres) agrees. It says in a recent report that 45 countries already restrict access to the Internet by various means, including the use of filters or forcing Internet users to subscribe to a state-controlled Internet provider.

Most of these countries are authoritarian to a greater or lesser degree and are not a welcome model for democratic governments.

The 20 "worst cases" named by Reporters Without Borders include the Central Asian states, Azerbaijan, Belarus, China, Iran, Iraq and countries in North Africa. The group says some of the countries claim they want to protect their people from what they call "subversive ideas" or to "defend national security and unity."

Gerald Kovacich, an Internet security expert, says attempts by government to control the flow of information -- including information on the Internet -- show a fundamental misunderstanding of the Information Age.

Kovacich explains: "What governments and others who want to control information don't understand is this: they are no longer in control of the information. Power is moving back into the hands of individuals and away from [governments] and corporations."

Powell says that, regardless of the outcome of the Yahoo case in France, it illuminates the need for all nations -- especially democracies --to work harder to preserve, not regulate, freedom of speech on the Internet.

"In the civil voices that take place in political debate -- in that multiplicity of voices -- we believe there is truth, more than if there is an attempt to find just one voice that is the truth. It means it is not always as neat or cut-and-dried as certain centrally organized governments and societies. But we think it has worked pretty well for the past couple of centuries."

Powell says preserving free speech on the Internet will help free societies thrive in years to come.

(RFE/RL Munich correspondent Roland Eggleston contributed to this report)