Yahoo Has Tough Day in French Court

Yahoo's court defense against French anti-racist groups took a hit Monday, when a panel of experts told a Paris court that it's technologically possible to bar some French citizens from Yahoo's Nazi memorabilia auctions.

A panel of court-appointed experts, including Net luminary Vint Cerf and French legal expert Francois Wallon, explained the finding to the court Monday afternoon. U.K. tech consultant Ben Laurie, the third member of the panel, was unable to attend the court session because his flight from London was canceled.

In May, Judge Jean-Jacques Gomez ordered Yahoo to implement technology to make it impossible for French Net surfers to participate in auctions for Nazi memorabilia that took place on Yahoo's main site. A French law dating back to World War II makes it illegal for French citizens to exchange or buy such items.

The Yahoo France site bars Nazi relics, but French surfers can still engage in auctions on other Yahoo sites, where people exchange items ranging from anti-Semitic speeches to SS war mementos.

Yahoo had maintained that it was technologically impossible to prevent surfers from accessing all reaches of its site.

Cerf and Wallon told Judge Gomez that no filter could keep all surfers out of particular areas of Web sites. The duo did, however, offer a suggestion to the court that they said could keep 70 percent to 80 percent of all French Net surfers out of banned Yahoo auctions.

The court will reconvene Nov. 20 to determine whether Yahoo will have to use this partial solution.

Going into Monday's court session, many had already guessed at the panel's conclusions. The Paris-based League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, which filed the complaint against Yahoo along with the Union of Jewish French Students and the Movement Against Racism, has maintained all along that a partial solution is acceptable.

"We don't want a perfect solution, because a perfect solution does not exist," said Marc Nobel, a member of the executive committee of the League against Racism and Anti-Semitism.

Yahoo declined to comment on Monday's testimony.

The case is expected to finally draw to a close this month but not before the two sides have a chance to file their report either supporting or challenging the panel's findings. However, it's unlikely that anyone will challenge the panel.

"You would have known the [panel's] answer if you know anything about the Internet," said Laurie in an interview.

He explained that the group concluded that it's impossible to completely restrict a Net surfer's access to all or parts of a Web site because of his or her nationality. Surfers can easily mask their identities and thus outwit most filters. Also, not all servers can determine with complete accuracy a surfer's country of origin. For example, subscribers to AOL, the world's largest Internet service provider, all seem to come from one of a collection of U.S.-based servers, said Laurie.

But the court isn't looking for an infallible solution, just a workable one. A final verdict is expected in two weeks.

Yahoo believes there's more at stake in the case than just access to auctions. The U.S. firm has maintained that no Internet firm should be subject to the laws of a foreign country.

But not all companies share Yahoo's position. EBay, the world's largest online auctioneer, has posted warnings on its main site and on EBay France notifying prospective buyers and sellers that the auction of Nazi memorabilia is not legal in France. EBay also has modified item searches, preventing browsers on its French site from reaching such auctions.

"We feel obviously it's very important for us to respect and obey the laws of a particular country where we do business," says Chris Donlay, an EBay spokesman. "It's a matter of respecting communities where we live and work. And it's good business."

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