Yahoo will prohibit Nazi memorabilia from being sold on its commerce sites, along with Ku Klux Klan memorabilia and other items "associated with groups which promote or glorify hatred and violence," beginning January 10. A Yahoo spokesman denied that impending penalties imposed by a French court in November prompted the change.
"We're trying to improve the quality of the site, and these items have been detracting from the quality," said Brian Fitzgerald, senior producer for Yahoo auctions. "It's important to note that the policy is not in response to the ruling."
It's not clear, either to Fitzgerald or to other observers, whether the policy change effectively complies with a French court ruling ordering Yahoo to prevent users in France from accessing US sites where banned Nazi items are sold. The court has said it will fine Yahoo about $US14,000 for each day it exceeds the order's February deadline.
German authorities have also investigated Yahoo's local site for the alleged auction sale of Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf," which is banned in that country. In a controversial move, Germany's highest civil court ruled that any Web site accessible by users in Germany is subject to German law, regardless of the site's physical origin.
The long-term legal and free-speech consequences of Yahoo's withdrawal remain unclear, said Donna Hoffman, a management professor at Vanderbilt University and a policy fellow with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
"I don't think that there's any clear-cut trend here," she said. "Yahoo is still fighting [the French ruling] in American courts. They haven't folded their tents." She said the controversy must be resolved at the national level, with countries coming together to establish common rules.
In Europe, free-speech advocates warned of a dangerous precedent if local laws on Web content are enforced worldwide. "If you're going to talk about tens and tens of governments, all with their own rules and their own wishes towards foreign services, you will get a completely unworkable situation," said Maurice Wessling, director of the Amsterdam-based human-rights group Bits of Freedom.
"You would get the Chinese government having requirements about critical sites or critical material or maybe certain books that are sold at certain online shops; you would have the Saudi government complaining about certain sites which are religious or which deal with explicit material," he continued.
But others see the clean-up of Web content as a healthy trend. "As in any new medium, the first driving force is pornography and slightly dodgy content; once things become mainstream, all this sort of activity can be dropped and we can move on," said Alistair Kelman, e-commerce counsel at Telepathic Industries, a London-based consulting company.
Kelman said there's little danger of governments restricting Web freedom outside their borders, as long as the US remains the "umbrella" power influencing the Web. "I don't think we seriously have to worry about free speech, because America is leading the way on this one. Unless a more authoritarian government came in, then I would be worried."