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Friday, 11 August, 2000, 14:17 GMT 15:17 UK
Analysis: French court tackles the internet
Yahoo!: Based in the US but on trial in France
By BBC News Online's Tarik Kafala

A court in Paris on Friday deferred its decision on a landmark ruling on the regulation of the internet.

The court hearing the case against Yahoo!, a leading US internet service provider, asked for more technical advice to be submitted.

The court is struggling with a ruling on whether Yahoo! should be forced to comply with French laws and prevent internet users in France from accessing a site that sells Nazi memorabilia. Under French law, the site is considered to incite racism.

The case has raised many fundamental questions relating to freedom of speech, and the primacy of national law in one country over a company that operates in another, in a medium that is by its nature international.

The case also highlights the difficulties that lawmakers all over the world are having in keeping up with the speed of technical innovation.

International v national law

If the court finally rules against Yahoo!, it will make material in a foreign language and not specifically aimed at the French population illegal under French law, simply because a French internet user can gain access to it.

Test case 1
Former German head of Compuserve is the first internet employee to be convicted of spreading illegal pornography
He was later acquitted
It was the first time that an internet service provider was held responsible for what its customers see on the web
Critics said the ruling was similar to convicting a telephone company for the content of conversations held by its customers
In France, it is illegal to sell or exhibit anything that is considered to incite racism.

But Yahoo! is based in Santa Clara, California, and the company has argued that closing the offending sites would contravene the first amendment of the US Constitution.

Yahoo! could, if the ruling goes against it, face daily fines of up to $150,000. The court in Paris has ruled out fining the company for the time being.

New rules for a new medium

There have been attempts at regulating the internet, but these have centred on the security of information on the web, combating hackers and cyber crime.

One of the difficulties faced by advocates of internet regulation is that the United States, the leader in the field, has shied away from censorship of the medium because of a strong tradition of the protection of freedom of speech.

At last month's G8 summit in Okinawa, Japan, delegates discussed, but did not agree on, the adoption of standardised rules at the national level on internet regulation.

Tackling cyber-crime

Interpol, the International Criminal Police Commission, is considering setting up an international intelligence network to help companies and governments cope with the rising tide of cyber-crime.

Test case 2
David Trimble, Northern Ireland's First Minister and a Nobel Prize winner, sues Amazon's UK arm for distributing a book he considered libellous
Amazon, a leading internet book seller, withdrew the book from circulation through its British arm
The book continued to be available through Amazon's main operation in the US
The international police organisation already collects and distributes information about cross-border crime such as art thefts and is now expanding this to include crimes committed on or through the web.

Individual governments are forming their own high-tech crime units to combat cyber-crime in accordance with their own laws.

Filtering systems

Central to the Yahoo! case, is the technical question of whether internet filter systems, that might for example prevent internet surfers in France from accessing particular sites, actually work.

Filtering systems do exist which allow internet service providers to know which country a web surfer is accessing the internet from, and therefore to shut access to particular websites.

However, these systems are far from fool proof because not all web users are nationally labelled.

While developing and implementing the technology that would make web filters complete is technically possible, it would place substantial overhead on web use.

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See also:

11 Aug 00 | Europe
Yahoo! faces Nazi site verdict
12 Jul 00 | Business
Yahoo fires Nasdaq rally
30 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Interpol patrols the web
25 Jul 00 | Americas
Congress fears FBI internet tap tool
17 Nov 99 | Europe
Ex-CompuServe boss acquitted
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