US judge to rule on the Internet

Major Yahoo/Nazi auction case fall out

A US judge is to decide the future of the Internet. According to the BBC, Judge Jeremy Fogel has agreed to consider whether law courts can determine what Web sites based in other countries can host.

Judge Fogel is becoming a bit of a specialist in IT and Internet matters, but it doesn't take a legal genius to work out that the implications of such a ruling are enormous. It cuts to the core of the multitude of legal confusions the Internet has joyously thrown up.

However, if Judge Fogel were to decide that law courts can't cover national boundaries with regard to the Internet, it would only start another round of huge legal in-fighting. Some would say he was foolish in the extreme to even consider broaching such an issue.

It all revolves around the infamous Yahoo/Nazi auction case. A quick reminder: it is illegal in France for anyone to buy or sell Nazi memorabilia. Yahoo's auction sites sold such material. Not on its French site, mind, its US site. However, various lobby groups took the case to court, saying that French people can still view and buy Nazi memorabilia, even though the site is in the US.

The judge asked three experts if Yahoo could block all French visitors. They (wrongly, in our opinion) said that most French users could be blocked. The judge then (rather than simply ban the shipping of such items to France) threatened Yahoo with huge daily fines (up to £10,000) if it didn't block French citizens from viewing the site.

Yahoo gave up on meeting the crazy criteria (although its free speech defence was incredibly arrogant) and pulled all Nazi memorabilia from all its sites.

At the same time, however, it appealed to a district court in California to look at whether French laws could be enforced in the US - free speech issue again.

And for the second time, a judge (American this time) who should know better has given an expansive ruling. It would seem judges can't help themselves in their bid to establish a precedent in cyberspace.

And so, Judge Fogel ruled that the French lobby groups (The International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (Licra) and the French Union of Jewish Students (UEJF)) could be sued themselves by Yahoo for damaging its business.

"This case presents novel legal issues arising from the global nature of the Internet," said the judge while lawyers all over the world greedily rubbed their hands together. And for good measure, a touch of US-is-best philosophy: "Many nations, including France, limit freedom of expression on the Internet based upon their respective legal, cultural or political standards. Yet because of the global nature of the Internet, virtually any public Web site can be accessed by end-users anywhere in the world."

Why the French judge didn't just say no goods could be sent to France, and why Judge Fogel didn't just say that the French courts could take the money out of Yahoo France, we may never know.

Is this any way for grown judges to behave? :-)

Incidentally, we have to put a caveat on this story. The Judge Fogel details we have taken from the BBC (as mentioned in the first paragraph). However, we have been unable to track down any other reports of his words - which is odd considering the high-profile nature of the case. ®

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