In the latest step in a legal battle over racism in cyberspace, a team of Internet experts told a judge Monday that it is possible to block some French Web surfers from Yahoo!'s U.S.-based auction site, though one specialist expressed concern about 'Net freedom.
CBS News Correspondent Elaine Cobbe reports the trans-Atlantic case began nearly seven months ago, when two Paris-based anti-racism groups sued Santa Clara, Calif.-based Yahoo!, angry that French people had access to more than 1,000 objects of Nazi memorabilia on the site at auctions.yahoo.com.
The groups, the Union of Jewish Students and the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA), argued that Yahoo! is breaking the law in France, where it is illegal to sell or display objects that promote racism. A Paris judge ordered Yahoo! to pay fines to the two groups, and later asked a team of experts to search for ways to filter French users from the site and all other sites deemed racist.
"The SS objects were the objects seen by the deportees and by the wives of the deportees when their children were taken away from them in the concentration camps," said Marc Knobel, of LICRA, arguing in favor of restricting access to the auction site. "It's possible to do something (about this) but it's important to do something quickly. It's important that French justice does not make a fool of itself."
The Yahoo! French-language portal site does not carry the Nazi auctions, but anyone in France can easily click onto the U.S. sister site and find any Nazi or neo-Nazi material which may be up for auction, as is legal under U.S. freedom-of-speech law.
Yahoo!'s lawyers have argued that it would be impossible to keep French people off the site, as cyberspace has no borders. The company is also worried the case could set a global precedent that would leave Web sites vulnerable to legal attacks from abroad.
In Paris on Monday, three technology experts said the Yahoo! site could indeed be partially controlled - but at least one of the specialists expressed caution about setting such a precedent.
After months of research, French expert Francois Wallon and American Vinton Cerf testified that it would be possible to detect 70 percent of Web surfers who use an easily identifiable French Internet service provider to access the auction site. Britain's Ben Laurie was also on the team but was unable to attend the hearing.
"Identification would be more difficult for the other 30 percent who use an international access provider such as AOL," Wallon said. The experts suggested that users be required to fill out an online form stating their nationality - while recognizing that people could easily lie.
Cerf, a founding father of the 'Net, expressed doubts about whether such attempts were worthwhile.
"The Internet is very open, and all technical solutions are permeable," Cerf said. "Those who want to reach a blocked site will learn how o bypass the keywords that block it."
But the experts said that attempting to block every racist site from French users would clearly be impossible.
"There are 100 million Internet sites in the world," he said. "In five years, there will be a billion. Even if we only block some of them, the list is long. And if we block too many of them, we risk blocking the whole system."
Paris Judge Jean-Jacques Gomez is expected to rule on the case Nov. 20.
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