EBay, Amazon avoid French knot

Unlike Yahoo!, eBay and Amazon have eluded nasty lawsuits over sales of Nazi items in France. What's their secret?

Yahoo!'s French adventure has gone so badly that most of its souvenirs are court documents. EBay and Amazon.com have made the same trek but have somehow managed to escape the same mistakes.

EBay, for example, has technology that can recognize French language browsers so as to prevent online auctions of Nazi memorabilia in France, where selling Nazi-related items is illegal. And eBay's French site, launched last month, does not allow searches for Nazi-related auction items.

"It's not a perfect solution, but it's the best that can be done," said an eBay spokesman. "Our first defence is an educated user. That's why we post all the policies and laws they need to be aware of. We find that always works best."

Meanwhile, Amazon uses proprietary software to flag mailing addresses in France and block the sale of anything that violates French law, said a company spokeswoman.

That eBay and Amazon have found ways to do business in France may offer some hope that Yahoo! will be able to resolve its ongoing fight with French authorities. On Monday, a French judge imposed a 90-day deadline for Yahoo! to implement a way to prevent sales of Nazi material in France.

But Yahoo! lawyers have argued in French courts that it is nearly impossible to block access to the sales. If French visitors log onto the Yahoo! France site, there are links to Yahoo!'s US Web portal, where there are sometimes auctions of Nazi items.

But Yahoo! attorney Greg Wrenn said every solution suggested so far is flawed.

"As we and the experts have looked at it, there are inherent problems that no company can solve," Wrenn said. Technical experts have suggested that Yahoo! use Internet Protocol (IP) addresses to identify customers from France. But the existing software is only 70 percent accurate, according to Wrenn.

Beyond that, there are Web-based programs that make IP addresses anonymous, which make one of the judge's conditions "trivial to get around", he said.

Next, Yahoo! was asked to make all users who want to browse anonymously state their nationality.

"Then, at auctions, we would filter out from the view of those users any auction item that has the word 'Nazi' in them," Wrenn said.

By barring from view any item with the word "Nazi" in it, French Yahoo! users would be restricted from historical references to World War II or to items such as The Diary of Anne Frank. Amazon.com ran into similar problems last year, when the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles criticised it for allowing the sale of some Nazi memorabilia and literature.

In response, Amazon stopped shipping Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler, said spokeswoman Margaret Dawson. The online bookseller also has installed proprietary software that, among other things, examines shipping addresses. A purchase of Nazi items destined for an address in France would not go through, Dawson explained.

"We have developed software that enables us to feel good about keeping those products out of those countries," she said. "We have taken care of that a year ago."

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