In a court case today in Paris, Yahoo! is expected to be told it must ban French users from those auction sites that sell Nazi memorabilia. Now, we're not going to get caught up in the hornet's nest that is the debate over Nazi items (we already did that when the situation arose in April). Instead, let's ignore what is on sale and look at the issues.
It is illegal under French law for people to sell Nazi memorabilia in France. Yahoo!'s French site therefore contains no such items. However, due to the Internet, French visitors are currently able to bid for these goods on US sites. It is this that various French groups wish to prevent.
It would seem that the logical solution is simply to ignore any bids from France and to refuse to ship any of these items to France. But many want a ban on French people even entering the system. And a group of technologists, including Vinton Cerf - an Internet pioneer, have decided that it is feasible for Yahoo! to do just this by blocking any visitors to the site from France.
The situation has been sold as a battle between a self-regulated Internet and a medium that varies according to different countries' laws. It is hardly that, but it does give a pointer. The question does arise though whether Yahoo! is guilty of hiding behind the freedom of speech/civil rights argument. Whether it likes it or not, Yahoo! is a publisher and as such should be subject to the same laws that other publishers face. There is room for argument that such laws should be modified, but exemption is not a practical solution.
There are a million and one scenarios that swing the case one way or another. For example, what if I, as a UK citizen wanted to buy a Nazi artefact but was in France using a French ID at the time of the auction. I could legally buy it and have it shipped to the UK, but if I was blocked from entering the site, this wouldn't be possible. Another question is: where is the artifact actually sold? When and where does it become illegal? Upon entering the country? Or is the sale itself illegal? If a French citizen tried to buy such an item and failed, would they be guilty of trying to purchase an illegal good? Would Yahoo! be an accessory? It's a legal quagmire, but it will be interesting to see what is finally decided.
Of course, on a different level, this is quite entertaining. After years and years of the US telling everyone else in the world where they can go and what they can do (e.g. with reference to Cuba), it's good to see that the great America is being told what it has to do in other people's countries. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it. ®