France vs. the Internet

Posted: Monday, December 04, 2000

The following editorial appeared Friday in the Providence Journal.

Throughout history, distinct civilizations have constantly interacted, spreading ideas and inventions, some by force and some by trade. This ebb and flow let the best ideas spread, and civilizations advanced accordingly. By now, the spread is almost complete. We have multinational organizations, such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and we have multinational corporations, such as Coca-Cola and McDonald's. In their wake, there appears to be a growing homogenization of culture and ideology across the world.

But the spread is reaching a critical point. For it to spread much further, national boundaries will have to, in effect, vanish, and distinct cultural heritages, rituals and laws will have to recede entirely into the background. Of course, with the Internet as the machinery for a universal ideology and culture, it may only be a matter of time before this happens. But just what ideology will be the international standard is still up for grabs.

In the first major national legal challenge to the Internet's international legal anarchy, a French judge recently ordered Yahoo to block French users from accessing Nazi memorabilia up for sale on its auction site. In the United States, where Yahoo operates from its Santa Clara, Calif., headquarters, the First Amendment's protection of speech extends to the sale of Hitler mouse pads, however unpopular they may be in many quarters. But in France, such items offend the collective unconscious of a nation that lost many thousands to the Holocaust, and that is still very self-conscious about France's cooperation with the Nazis from June 1940 to D-Day.

In France, it is illegal to display or sell racist material. Thus, on Yahoo's French site (, users won't find any SS recruitment posters. But a user would only have to switch over to if it were the original Hitler watercolors he was after.

The French judge suggested a filtering system for French Internet service providers. But not only will this not work, since filtering technology is about as effective as plugging a leak with a paper towel, but a simple international call bypasses the French ISP filter, a reminder of the slipperiness of any Internet restrictions.

The only thing that can stop Yahoo from facilitating the sales of swastika flags in France is for a U.S. court to declare the Internet portal's activities illegal. But this probably won't happen, and the borderless Internet will continue to render the disparity between French law and American law moot. And even if a federal court did crack down, no doubt purveyors of Nazi memorabilia would find another base on the decentralized Internet.

Perhaps one day an international organization will create an impeccable international legal code that deals with such disparities. But until then, what's legal in one country will be available all over the globe.

Meanwhile, we should note the great irony that the memorabilia of one of the most repressive regimes in history has been transformed into a symbol of international freedom.

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