A recent court decision in France may presage a frustrating conflict between the borderless Internet and the French elite. On July 24, the American Web company Yahoo! testified in Paris against a Gallic court's ruling that it must block French users' access to a site where people buy and sell Nazi memorabilia. Jean-Jacques Gomez, the judge who decided the case, argues that Yahoo! disregarded French territorial boundaries by making the site accessible in France, where it is illegal to sell racist merchandise.
Gomez had ordered Yahoo! to return to court in July with evidence that they had taken steps to block French users. Instead, company co-founder Jerry Yang sent an expert witness to testify that such a barrier would be technically impossible. In interviews, Yang has been blunt: "We are not going to change the content of our sites in the United States just because someone in France is asking us to," he told the French daily Liberation. Gomez will issue his decision in mid-August.
In related news, the French government is pushing the Liberty of Communication Act, which would require anyone publishing a Web site to register with the government. The bill's opponents have pointed out that anyone who wants to publish anonymously can evade the law simply by using a foreign Web host.
French leaders aren't oblivious to such logistical problems. At a G-8 meeting in May, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin called for "a collective response on a global scale" to Internet crime and terrorism.
The Net, an intrinsically global medium, clearly has the French authorities in a tizzy. They've fought doggedly in recent years to defend their territory against cultural marauders (read: the United States, with its blockbuster movies and Anglo-Saxon words). But what to do about the confounded Internet? Convince the whole world to conform to Paris' views on free speech? That's gonna take a lot of vin rouge.