American Internet giant Yahoo! Inc. (Nasdaq: YHOO) ran into yet another international dispute this weekend when authorities in the religiously conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia closed down one of its sites, clubs.yahoo.com.
Saudi authorities told Saudi newspaper al-Eqtisadiah that the site contained pornographic and other morally offensive material.
“The decision to block the clubs.yahoo.com site is irreversible,” said Khalil al-Jadaan of the country’s only Internet Service Provider (ISP), the King Abdul Aziz Center for Science and Technology. “Matters have gone beyond what is acceptable, and pornographic and other offensive sites are mushrooming.”
Added al-Jadaan, “These sites are created with disconcerting ease, and it is very difficult to control them. They are being blocked as a reflection of the country’s social, religious and political values.”
More than 250 Saudi clubs belonged to the Yahoo! site, serving some 60,000 members.
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The censorship act is the latest incident involving conflicting national viewpoints on the World Wide Web, where legal, ethical and moral governance is trying to catch up with a new and rapidly evolving media.
Last spring, the Santa Clara, California-based Yahoo! lost a French court case in which the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism and the Union of French Jewish Students charged the company with illegally hosting auctions of Nazi-related paraphernalia. Yahoo! has pledged to work with the panel toward finding a solution.
A judge from the Paris Tribunal de Grande Instance gave the panel two months to find a way to block the U.S.-based Web auctions, which violate French law.
In Saudi Arabia, the conflict is more moral than legal. Saudi society is known for its conservative social values: there are no cinemas, for example, and the intermingling of the sexes is subject to strict cultural scrutiny.
The Internet is a relative newcomer to Saudi Arabia, where authorities allowed its first ISP in 1999. Before that, users could dial long-distance internationally to gain access to the Internet.
Saudi officials said they monitored the Yahoo! site for three months before deciding to shut it down.
“The club’s site was blocked because most of the material was against the kingdom’s religious, social and political values,” al-Jadaan said.
Legal experts deem the French case against Yahoo! as significant because it may set a precedent for whether one country can impose its laws on the Internet.
Critics of the lawsuit argue that if the French plaintiffs are successful, nations from all over the world could try to impose their laws on the Internet, resulting in legal anarchy.
The suit was brought by two anti-racism groups in France because, even though the Nazi souvenirs are selling on a U.S. site and are aimed at U.S. customers, French users are able to access the site, which contains more than 100 items, such as Third Reich battle flags and dress swords.
Free Speech Issues
Both cases involving Yahoo! underscore the fundamental differences between U.S. protections of free speech and much more restrictive policies in some other countries.
Given the global nature of the Internet, strictly regulating access to content could prove virtually impossible. In the French case, for instance, the Nazi paraphernalia is sold on U.S. Yahoo! sites and Internet users in France can access them, raising fundamental questions about which nation’s law should apply.
In the wake of the Saudi crackdown on Yahoo! sites, Saudi Web users could conceivably revert to dialing long-distance to access a foreign ISP and thus gain access to porn sites.
Which Laws Apply?
Other U.S. companies have faced similar problems. Amazon.com stopped selling Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ in Germany after complaints from the German government, which has strict laws against the dissemination of hate material.
Also, the former head of CompuServe, Felix Somm, was convicted in Germany for aiding the distribution of child pornography by providing unfiltered Internet access. The conviction was overturned last November, avoiding conflict with U.S. laws that do not hold the ISP responsible for content.
Lawyers Weigh In
Last month, the American Bar Association (ABA) weighed in on the touchy issue of which laws apply in cyberspace. The ABA’s Global Cyberspace Jurisdiction Project concluded after two years of study that the Internet needs multinational rules that do not depend upon physical location.
“It’s as if we’ve landed on Mars and we’re constructing a commercial and business setting,” project chair Thomas Vartanian said upon releasing the report. “We have to establish new rules of engagement and we have to get people used to dealing with those new rules.”