French Out to Stop Sale of Nazi Items

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PARIS/BRUSSELS, Belgium -- A French court has ordered hearings in November to decide whether Yahoo.com can stop French surfers from buying Nazi insignia from its US site. The selling of such items is illegal in France and Yahoo has removed them from its French site.


The sale of SS daggers, knights' crosses with diamonds, brown shirts, black shirts and swastika armbands are legal in the US, as is the sale of Hitler's book, "Mein Kampf."


Yahoo argues that it has no way of knowing where online buyers come from.


But plaintiffs, including the association of Jewish students in France, demanded that Yahoo stop French surfers from buying them anyway. The French court has ordered three experts to decide if such a blockage is technically feasible.


The case, European experts said, is not unique. They argued that national laws will clash repeatedly as cross-border transactions on the Internet multiply and expand.


"There have been a number of cases like this over the years," said Alastair Tempest, director general at the Federation of European Direct Marketing. "It's the old story about responsibility for content and whether organizations like Yahoo as portals have the right to do anything with their content. They've been rumbling around Europe for years and will keep on doing so.


"Several years ago French and German authorities put the managing directors of [America Online] and CompuServe behind bars because their chat rooms included pedophiliac messages, and in both cases the authorities had to back off.


"Portals do not have responsibility for what people post on chat rooms, and all you can do is clean them up on a regular basis. Besides, this is an issue that has to do with freedom of expression and it is a very old issue."


Tempest recalled the case of a British handyman who went to Denmark, where he published "a little red school book" full of dirty pictures and mailed the books into the UK for profit.


"After several years of living in Denmark he very foolishly went back to the UK and was promptly arrested for selling pornography," Tempest said. "His defense? He was living in Denmark where rules were more permissive and therefore he was within the parameters of Danish law."


The British court agreed but pointed out that it was quite clear he had published the little red books for audiences in the UK and was therefore guilty of breaking British law.


Tempest cited another case involving a Portuguese designer. The man had built a lucrative market among various expatriates who lived in Portugal. When they returned home to the Benelux countries -- Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg -- they continued to buy product on the designer's Web site.


One of the items was a lizard belt, which was legal to sell in Portugal or in Brazil where the designer had bought the skins, but was illegal to sell in Benelux because the lizard was considered an endangered species.


Since the court could only chide the Portuguese for not living up to European law, it focused on the buyers. Citizens of the Benelux countries, it ruled, should have known that they were buying something that could not legally be imported.


Tempest speculated that Internet providers might do well to label products that may be banned in some countries as such, but conceded that nobody has looked at that possibility yet.


"The French and Portuguese cases are part of a series of cases being brought about this subject and sooner or later there will be case law to act as precedent. But this is an awfully difficult problem," he said.


"It has to do with an individual country's decision as to what could harm democracy and therefore it is all wrapped up in complex interpretations of freedom of speech and freedom to buy products and behave in certain ways."
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