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Yahoo! Nazi tech expert backtracks

Decision is 'half-assed and trivially avoidable'

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One of the three Internet experts that decided it was technically possible to prevent French users from accessing parts of Yahoo! US' auction site has posted an apology on his own Web site, saying that the solution is "half-assed and trivially avoidable".

A week ago, French judge Gomez enforced the decision against Yahoo! US which stated that French Internet users should not be allowed to even see auctions where Nazi memorabilia were on offer. The decision was widely reported due to the emotive nature of the case and was billed as a landmark decision in Internet law.

British expert Ben Laurie was sidelined in terms of coverage by Vint Cerf - papa to Internet protocols and now head of ICANN - but was obviously unimpressed with media coverage of the case and posted his own "apologia" on his Web site. In it, he justifies his role in the ultimate decision by saying he ignored the politics behind the case and concentrated purely on the technical feasibility of spotting and blocking Internet users from France.

His conclusion was that around 80 per cent of French traffic could be blocked (90 per cent was quoted by the judge), although any control could be circumvented with a simple anonymiser program. AOL subscribers are another "huge exception".

However, he then goes on to make his personal opinion of the case clear, even to the extent of involving himself into the draconian French laws regarding Nazi material. He accepts that the French government "has the right to assert its jurisdiction over its citizens", and Yahoo's case that it would be impractical to implement hundreds of different laws over its pages is a strong one. However, he points out that French law refers not only to purchasing but to looking at Nazi memorabilia. This is where he gets a bit tetchy:

"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. The Internet is pure information. The fact that I cast aside my libertarian leanings in order to answer the question for the court, and yet was still unable to help in any substantive way, I find encouraging. We know we've done the right thing when our own best efforts cannot thwart it." Uh-huh?

He ends by saying "the Internet does not adapt well to the control of subject matter, not that governments will intervene and censor it successfully - people have been trying to do that since it started, and they've never got anywhere. This case is no exception".

His arguments seem a little haphazard to us, taking in, as he does, just about every point of view without coming out in favour of any of them. One aspect he did miss, however - and one we raised last time, but was taken to its wonderful conclusion by a piece in the Observer at the weekend - was that Yahoo! was hiding behind a fashionable freedom of speech argument. For example, we didn't see Yahoo! raising this argument when it was discovered auctioning child porn on its Japanese site earlier in the week.

We think John Naughton did a good job of tackling Yahoo's attitude in his Observer piece, so we'll let him speak: "In the court case last May, Yahoo!'s lawyers smiled indulgently and patiently explained to Judge Gomez in words of one syllable that the Internet was a borderless phenomenon, that the laws of France could not possibly apply to a US company based in California and that in any event it was technically impossible to block French users from accessing the offending Web sites. The judge, however, was neither intimidated nor impressed by this transatlantic guff. Nor, one suspects, did he take kindly to being patronised."

And, of course, there is the issue that these geographically indefinable Internet firms are also international companies and have significant commercial interests in countries all over the world. Best not to upset people of a particular nationality with the arrogant assumption that your views are superior to theirs, especially if you want them to buy your goods.

The truth of it is that a balance needs to be struck between freedom of information and the rights of all nationalities not to have others' views imposed upon them. ®

Related Links

Ben Laurie's apology
Observer piece "Yahoo! for brave French courts"

Related Stories

Yahoo! legally obliged to ban the French?
Yahoo! loses Nazi trinkets case
Yahoo! Japan in child porn police raid

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