Paris, Monday, January 15, 2001
[Images added by
to Pressure in France Sets a Dangerous
the real Nazis?
THE recent decision by Yahoo to cave in
to the French courts and ban the sale of
Nazi memorabilia from its auction sites
should send a shiver down the spine of
every Internet user around the world.
Yahoo spent months fighting French law.
But faced with the threat of stiff fines
in France, it ultimately gave up, and as
of Wednesday, it banned the sale of
Nazi-related merchandise and
paraphernalia. As a result, Internet users
-- you and me -- are entering a regime in
which the most restrictive rules anywhere
can be enforced everywhere.
Let me be clear: Nazi memorabilia,
including flags, uniforms and swastikas,
are repugnant, and people interested in
buying such things should be sent for
psychiatric examination. But if you
believe in freedom, particularly freedom
of expression, you frequently wind up
defending people you'd rather not have
dinner with. People who say popular things
never have trouble.
No one ever tries to shut them up. It
is the people who say unpopular and even
offensive things who need protection --
not for their sake, but for ours. Their
freedom is your freedom and my
The French courts need to be reminded
of the wisdom of Voltaire, who said, "I
disagree with what you say, but I will
defend to the death your right to say it."
In ruling against Yahoo, the court held
that selling -- or even displaying -- Nazi
material "offended France's collective
memory," which it no doubt does.
But offensiveness is never sufficient
reason to restrict liberty. In the United
States, many people believe that burning
the American flag is offensive and should
be illegal. Congress has twice passed laws
to that effect. But so far, at least, the
U.S. Supreme Court, by narrow margins, has
struck down those laws.
Besides which, different societies have
varying views of what's offensive.
- Will courts in Arab countries now
seek to prevent the sale of Jewish
memorabilia on the Internet? Those
items presumably offend the Arabs'
- Will a Chinese court now threaten
heavy fines on Internet sites that
contain information about Falun Gong,
which is illegal in China?
- Will a Burmese court fine sites
that contain complaints about human
rights violations there?
- In general, will courts in
totalitarian countries punish sites
that promote or even discuss the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
which they may find offensive?
These are not isolated or absurd cases.
Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters
Without Borders) concluded recently that
45 countries restricted access to the
Internet and that 20 of them did so on the
grounds of protecting people from
"subversive ideas" or defending "national
security and unity." To read the report,
If executives at Yahoo think that by
banning Nazi material they have put the
problem behind them, they should think
again. Their decision is shortsighted.
This is only the beginning of what is to
Of course, Yahoo insists that its
decision to ban Nazi memorabilia has
nothing to do with the French courts. It
says it has taken this step on its own in
response to customer complaints and after
deciding that this is the kind of
merchandise it doesn't want to sell.
Like Pinocchio, Yahoo's nose is growing
by the minute. Next they'll pour water on
our backs and tell us it's raining. The
company notes proudly that it has filed
suit in a federal court in the United
States to block enforcement of the French
court's order on the ground that French
courts have no jurisdiction over a Web
site owned by a U.S. company and housed in
the United States, the great majority of
whose viewers are American.
Yahoo says it will continue to pursue
that action. Really? If it doesn't intend
to sell the Nazi stuff anyway, why doesn't
it drop the suit? Or, to put it another
way, if it wins in the U.S. federal court,
will it allow the auctions of Nazi-related
material to resume? Before it gave up in
France, Yahoo argued that there was no way
for it to prevent French viewers from
accessing its Web site.
To assess the technical argument, the
French court asked three computer experts
to study the situation and report back.
The experts from Britain and the United
States said that Yahoo was correct and
there was no technological fix. The French
expert disagreed, and the court sided with
The British member of the panel, Ben
Laurie, described the proposed
solution as "half-assed and trivially
avoidable." His commentary on the matter,
"An Expert's Apology," is available at
the technical argument, Mr. Laurie
"What is supposed to be
prevented is not the purchase of Nazi
memorabilia, but the mere ability to
even see them.
"What is being fought over is
literally what people think. No one
should be able to control what I know
or what I think. Not the government.
Not the Thought Police. Not my family.
Not my friends."
Yahoo will live to regret its decision.
So will the rest of us. The consequences
are much more dangerous than the sale of
Nazi junk to a bunch of nuts. By the way,
anyone interested in buying these things
could go to the eBay auction site,
www.ebay.com, and search for the word
"Nazi." There are hundreds of items for
sale, at least as of Sunday, and although
eBay restricts their sale in France,
Germany, Austria and Italy, the eBay site
is still accessible in those
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