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French battle Yahoo! sales

The posting of Nazi memorabilia is against the country’s laws

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PARIS — In France, it is illegal to sell swastika-emblazoned battle flags, SS daggers and replica canisters of Zyklon B, the lethal gas that poured into the terrifying "shower rooms" at Nazi death camps.

But U.S.-based Yahoo! Inc. offers more than 1,000 such Nazi objects for sale through its Web auction site. The memorabilia are available to anyone in the world — including the French — with a credit card and a click of the mouse.

The collision of the Internet's global, borderless nature with local laws is a conflict being played out increasingly and often, as in a Paris courtroom on Monday, pits Old World laws and sensibilities against the practices of U.S.-based companies.

In Monday's three-hour hearing, Yahoo! defended itself against two anti-racism groups who sued to try to force the Silicon Valley company — owner of the Internet's most-visited Web pages — to prevent Nazi memorabilia and other content deemed racist from being seen in France.

Impossible, an expert witness called by Yahoo! testified, arguing in essence that there is no France on the Internet — that it would be technically impossible to keep French cybernauts off the disputed Web sites.

Prosecutor Bernard Fos asked the judge to order a team of experts to examine the technological possibilities of "filter systems" that would screen out French users — and thus resolve the issue.

Fos also recommended that Yahoo! be fined each day it breaks French law — which prohibits selling or displaying anything that incites racism — while specialists weigh solutions.

Judge Jean-Jacques Gomez is expected to issue a decision in the second week of August.

In May, Gomez ordered Yahoo to pay more than $1,000 to each of the two advocacy groups that sued, ruling that Yahoo! had offended the country's "collective memory." He also ordered Yahoo! to find ways to block French users from its sites selling Nazi paraphernalia.

Germany also has strict laws against the dissemination of hate material and the easy availability of such information via the Internet has vexed leaders and judges in that country.

In November, the Internet bookseller Amazon.com responded to Berlin government complaints by deciding to stop shipping Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" to customers in Germany, where the book is banned.

A Germany court also heard one of the Internet's first major test cases, in which the former head of the CompuServe online service in that country was prosecuted for failing to block access to child pornography sites. Found guilty in 1998 of distributing illegal pornography, Felix Somm's conviction was overturned last November.

In the Yahoo! case, lawyers for the advocacy groups, including the Union of Jewish Students and the Licra anti-racism organization, said Yahoo! should have made a "good faith" effort to keep users in France off the Nazi paraphernalia sites.

But they said Yahoo! has dragged its feet. If Yahoo! can't find the technology to block users dialing in from France, they argued, why not pull down the sites altogether?

"The point is that the company must show whether it wants to keep on promoting Nazism," said Ygal El Harrar, president of the Jewish students' group.

Lawyers for the company, based in Santa Clara, Calif., say they've already pulled Third Reich paraphernalia from their France-based site, Yahoo.fr.

And more recently, they've added warnings to some pages with sensitive material, alerting French users that they risk breaking French law by viewing them.

Attorneys for Yahoo! argued that although screening software exists, no existing technology could effectively keep all French users from seeing racist sites.

They also said that blocking certain keywords, such as "Nazi," would hinder free speech and hurt people doing legitimate historical research.

"Imagine that we would decide to implement what's being asked of us," said Philippe Guillanton, Yahoo's chief executive in France. "Tomorrow, a judge from any country could come to a Web publisher from any other country and ask them to pull down such and such because it's unacceptable in that country.

"The Web doesn't work that way," Guillanton said, arguing that individual users are accountable for what they seek out on the pell-mell Web.

"The Web is based around the concept of user responsibility," he said after the hearing.

Like most of the Licra members at the hearing, Marc Knobel argued that there is a moral high ground in this case that should shield the French from the commercialization of Nazi objects.

"Europe has suffered through Nazism," he said. "We have a different approach: Banalizing Nazism is immoral."