Tech expert tells French court to get real

Governments need to get used to the fact they cannot control what people see on the Internet, according to expert witness

A technical expert has advised a French court that Yahoo! will not be able to restrict French Internet users from accessing prohibited Nazi content in the US.

In May the US Web portal was accused by the international league against racism and antisemitism (Licra), and the union of Jewish students of France (UEJF) of breaking a French law that prohibits the sale of Nazi artefacts to French citizens.

Judge Jean-Jacques Gomez controversially ruled that Yahoo! must stop showing the offending material to French users. Under pressure, the court was forced to investigate whether the judges' request was technically feasible.

Ben Laurie, one of three expert witnesses appointed by the court, said this week that although barriers could be put in place by Yahoo!, they would be simple to avoid. "It's not possible to force people [to not look at the illegal material]," he says. "You can have a 90 percent sure solution, but it would be trivial to avoid."

Laurie is director of the Apache Foundation, which supports development of the widely used Apache Web server. He says that it is possible to approximately identify the geographical location of a Web site visitor by their IP (Internet Protocol) address, which is assigned by a local ISP and identifies them to other computers on the Internet. But this information is often inaccurate, says Laurie, and can also be eluded using widely available services that disguise a user's IP address.

Laurie says the technique would inevitably also identify some users from outside France as French and says the only alternative is to ask users to volunteer their geographical information. "I would think that you'd get a certain amount of false positives so you'd probably have to ask people, regardless of where you think they are," he says.

The court case has wide reaching implications for Internet users in France, but highlights concern over the jurisdictional responsibility of Internet content companies worldwide.

Gus Hosien, deputy director of UK-based organisation Privacy International, says the Court has got it wrong. "Governments should just get used to the fact that people are going to view content that traditionally they couldn't. We're seeing a trend towards more and more authentication on the Internet and that's something we don't like," he says.

Yahoo! must now submit a report on the technical issues involved. It anticipates Judge Gomez will make a final ruling on the case on 20 November.

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