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Yahoo auction case may reveal borders of cyberspace

A French judge issues a temporary reprieve from ordering restrictions that would bar local citizens from accessing Nazi memorabilia on the Web portal.

A warning to Internet companies doing business abroad: Local governments may have the power to impose restrictions even if your servers are in the United States.

In the latest chapter of a potentially precedent-setting case, a French judge today issued a temporary reprieve from restrictions that would bar citizens from accessing Nazi memorabilia on Web portal Yahoo.

Judge Jean-Jacques Gomez said that over the next two months, three experts will examine ways of blocking content from Web sites originating in the United States.

Regardless of whether current technology fits the bill, geographic tracking techniques will likely figure strongly in the growing debate, fueled by the French court, over the borderless Web. New technology is being developed that can accurately trace the country, state and potentially the city where the servers are located that were used to help connect a person to Internet communities. It is not clear, however, whether that capability alone is sufficient to meet the court's criteria.

In addition, the case could serve as a test of how far foreign jurisdictions can go to impose regulations against Internet companies. While the Internet is a global medium where sites can be accessed on any Web-connected computer, the case may show that borders and local laws still exist in cyberspace.

"The bottom line is it becomes a business decision where, if (companies) want to do business in the country, they have to follow the laws," said Jason Epstein, an Internet and computer attorney at Baker Donelson Bearman & Caldwell, a Nashville, Tenn., law firm.

"Countries are becoming more aware that their laws are not being followed," Epstein added.

An end to the borderless Web?
Several companies offer technology for tracing the approximate physical location of a Net user, a key component for any potential filtering techniques based on geography, although not the only requirement.

Networking service provider Akamai Technologies in June began offering customers a service dubbed EdgeScape, which traces the physical position of servers that hand out the numeric codes, or Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, used to route signals over the Web to people's computers.

IP addresses use 32-bit codes, providing a possible 4.26 billion combinations. The codes are assigned in blocks to Internet service providers (ISPs), which are organized geographically, thus making it possible to map most IP addresses with a relatively high degree of accuracy.

Akamai says the service can find a Web user within a particular country, as well as a state or province in the United States and Canada. The company also said it has plans to track people anonymously within ZIP codes, but more detailed information such as street addresses cannot be obtained from IP addresses alone.

Several tools exist online that are designed to shield surfers' personally identifiable information--including locations of their ISPs--from prying Web servers' digital eyes. Zero Knowledge's Freedom Network, for example, scrambles Web traffic and sends it though a series of detours, making it difficult or impossible to determine the origin of requests.

The Freenet network and AT&T's newly released Publius publishing system are also designed to maintain absolute anonymity for content publishers and surfers, but they do not extend to the Web at large.

Akamai pitches the service to advertisers as a way to target local Web surfers, but company representatives would not speculate about whether the service could be employed to help Yahoo comply with the French court's order.

"Akamai is not in the business of deciding what content can be viewed by what Web users," said spokesman Jeff Young.

Yahoo is a long-time Akamai customer, although it does not currently use EdgeScape.

In addition to Akamai, start-up NetGeo has developed beta software that ties IP addresses to geographical locations.

Co-founder Michael Yang said the service could be used to create a filter system for content based on countries. He added that the service is 98 percent accurate.

"I considered calling the French court to offer our technology as a solution when I first read about the case two months ago," he said.

Yang admitted that the service is not foolproof, however. For example, if someone in Boston were to connect to an ISP located in France, NetGeo would identify that person as a French user. But he said the chance of someone making an international, long-distance call for Internet service is "minuscule."

For its part, Yahoo dismisses such technology as a possible solution to its French dilemma.

"Everybody knows this technology exists," said a Yahoo representative. "But that isn't relevant to complying with the court's order."

The representative said a much higher degree of accuracy would be required than is currently available, as well as a means for tracking the citizenship of individuals and their tastes.

"We would need to know if this particular content offends someone," she said.

Who writes the rules?
Yahoo's legal entanglements in France began in April when the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA), a Paris-based anti-racism group, took the Web portal to court to stop sales of Nazi paraphernalia to French citizens on its auction site. French law prohibits the sale or exhibition of objects associated with racism.

A month later, a French court ordered Yahoo to block the sale of Nazi items to French citizens. Yahoo told the court that it was technically impossible to filter out these sales. Local Yahoo executives warned that the order could set a "potentially dangerous precedent."

Yahoo Auctions does not host any of its own merchandise. Rather, like eBay, it allows people to auction their own goods to other Yahoo users. People set the initial starting prices for their auctions and facilitate the sales of the auctioned goods.

For Yahoo, the bigger picture of the case involves jurisdiction. Yahoo has several subsidiaries around the world, including one in France, which produce local versions of its service. While local subsidiaries follow local laws, does a foreign government have jurisdiction over content from, which is based in the United States?

"The people who create (Yahoo France) are subject to French jurisdiction," said Heather Killen, Yahoo's senior vice president of international operations. "However, we do not believe that is created and maintained and developed by team in the U.S. and is in the English language and actively promoted to a U.S. audience--we don't believe that the site is subject to French jurisdiction."