SS auction items spark debate on censorship in cyberspace

JERUSALEM — This is an era in which censorship is considered quaint and freedom of speech is taking on a new and different meaning. It is an era that allows messages of racial hatred to masquerade as ones and zeros flying through cyberspace at top speed, buzzing from one carrier to another as they seek the quickest path from point A to point B.

It is this world that French judge Jean-Jacques Gomez stepped into with his May ruling asking Yahoo! Inc. to block French Web surfers from Yahoo.com's English-language auction sites for Nazi memorabilia, a ruling he reaffirmed again late last month.

Gomez's emergency ruling, which gave a three-person team two months to work on the technical hurdles of imposing such a blackout, rejected Yahoo's argument that French courts cannot impose French law, which prohibits exhibit or sale of objects that incite racial hatred, on French citizens surfing Yahoo's English-language sites. (The French-language Yahoo portal does not carry such auctions.)

The plaintiffs in the case — the Paris International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, the Union of French Jewish Students, and the French Movement against Racism are arguing that U.S. law stops at American borders, even in the virtual world.

Obtaining various objects emblazoned with an SS or swastika via the Internet is simple, really, and therein lies the problem — at least to some countries in Europe and to hate-monitoring organizations.

Prominently displayed at the top of the home page of Yahoo! is a link to auctions. Type in "Nazi," and — voila! — thousands of items connected with the Third Reich stare back at you, waiting to be purchased.

It's all there: medals, pins, ribbons, military insignia, uniforms, hats, guns, pistols, holsters, armbands, daggers, revolvers, belt buckles, awards of all kinds, books, movies, stamps — there simply is no end to the collectible items for sale. Recently in fact, there were thousands of such items available for sale on Yahoo.

Interested in original itty-bitty naval buttons made into cuff links? It's $18. A World War II German Nazi Czech pistol holster? $36. Nazi dagger with sheath hanger and knot — in excellent condition, mind you — catch your fancy? $255. And if your taste runs to more expensive items, a Nazi Postschutz dagger can be had for $1,895. And on it goes.

The idea of selling Nazi memorabilia over the Internet touches on a range of social and political issues, the least of which is the technological problem, says Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, which extensively monitors hate sites on the Web.

"The fact is, if there is money to be made, or if there are lawsuits to be avoided in the U.S. that will actually cost them money, the technology will be found," says Cooper. "Nothing on the Internet is impossible, if there's a financial incentive."

Internet experts in Israel, however, doubt that borders can continue to exist in the era of the World Wide Web, and even if they do, it will be almost impossible to enforce them.

"There is a famous saying about the Internet," notes Michael Jaffe, who lectures on computer-mediated communications at Haifa University. "It says that the Internet senses censorship, considers it damaging and routes around it."

Indeed, when anyone with an Internet account can launch a Web site and when major search engines reportedly account for only 5 percent of the total information on the Net, potential censors would seem to be outnumbered.

Hate sites can also opt to go underground by inviting only a select group to participate, granting sympathizers entrance by way of a password. Messages can also be encrypted before being sent, enabling only the receiver with the right key or word to actually read the text.

In fact, Web censorship is possible only in countries like Singapore and China, where access is still very restricted because the government controls the servers.

In democratic countries, however, matters are not that simple.

"For someone to try and censor someone else is a futile exercise on the Internet," says Jaffe. "There are so many ways to get around it. The Internet is basically an electronic infrastructure composed of cables and relays and things like that. It does not define whether a message is anti-Semitic or not.

Beyond the more technical problems of imposing censorship lies the ethical question of free speech.

Cooper is rankled by Yahoo! and the Internet auction site eBay's defense of selling Nazi memorabilia as a First Amendment issue. He says the companies are not "a free charity to allow people to use their space in order to auction things; they're in it for the money. And at least if they were more honest to say so, then the issue could be more properly discussed.

"They've made a corporate decision unprecedented in American business — they decided to capture the Nazi-niche market. They didn't create it, they just want to cash in on it. So it's not so much who's the seller and who's buying, it is that they are mainstreaming this stuff. Legitimizing and pushing forward the entire process."

Cooper calls this a denigration of memory, of history. "What we're saying is, in order to have a few more hits, do you really need to do this?"

In all, it is "very difficult to hold Internet service providers responsible for content because of the question of whether it is private speech or mass communication," says Jaffe. "I like to think of it like someone talking on a street corner. If you overhear them that is one thing, but it is not the same as having the content broadcast on your television set.

"We can hold Yahoo! responsible, but it is not exactly black and white. The question is one of balancing private speech against public safety. If a Web site is going to call for someone to go out and kill Jews, Catholics or African Americans, then that is incitement, which even in private speech is not protected by law — and this is where the line must be drawn."

Cooper credits countries in Europe for taking a stand against the corporate giants, declaring that it's not business as usual where there are laws against it.

"You have to give the French democracy some points, as Germany did previously, for telling American companies, 'Look, we all have our own ways of doing business,' and drawing the line at behavior that impacts on the public.

"What the French court is saying is, what the hell does this have to do with speech? This is the way you decide to do business? It's an insult to the victims. Where's your social consciousness?

"The democracies [in Europe] understand that they are not going to be able to legislate in America the way they can legislate in Europe. But they are also sending a message to American companies, that if you want to do business in our neck of the woods, you're going to have to show some derech eretz [respect]. Or, you may have a lot of problems doing business."

Should there be internationally recognized lines regulating the Internet? Jaffe thinks so, noting that the Internet's global character has made national conventions defunct, a notion Judge Gomez should perhaps take into account as he grapples with the question of whether the Web should be corralled back into the borders of each respective country.

Gomez might also take a look at how mirror sites skirt national law by setting up abroad, on the principle of free speech, sites that have been banned in their home countries.

"If there are going to be more effective controls, it would be sensible for them to be global," says Jaffe.

However, Itay Banner, the head of content for the web portal Israel Online, thinks that even international conventions would be an outdated, futile attempt at controlling the Internet.

"We have already concluded that it is hard to decide who is the authority on cyberspace," he says. "I think that whoever wants to get to the hate sites, or sites auctioning off Nazi memorabilia, will get there, and any attempt to stop them will merely be tilting at windmills."