The criminal case was brought against Yahoo! in October 2001 following a complaint filed by the Association of Auschwitz Deportees, a group of French Holocaust survivors and their families, and a human rights group called The Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Between People.
Yahoo! and Koogle were accused of two offences under French law: "justifying a crime against humanity" and "exhibiting a uniform, insignia or emblem of a person guilty of crimes against humanity." The offences carry a maximum of up to five years in jail and a fine of up to €45,700.
The Yahoo! auction offered Nazi, neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan memorabilia to on-line bidders, including films, swastikas, daggers, uniforms, photos and medals. Notably, the yahoo.fr site – the site targeting French internet users – has always forbidden such auctions.
The issue was over the fact that French users, if they chose, could visit the US site, yahoo.com. Yahoo! has since amended its conditions for yahoo.com users wanting to post internet auctions; such sales are now forbidden, although in doing so, Yahoo! cited ethical, not legal reasons.
The Paris court yesterday ruled that neither charge against Yahoo! and Koogle had been proved. Under French laws, the court said, justifying war crimes means "glorifying, praising, or at least presenting the crimes in question favourably". According to the court, the activities of Yahoo! did not match this definition.
The case was being closely watched around the world. Yahoo!'s actions were legal in the US and could have been deemed illegal – and punished – in France.
In a similar case in December 2000, the German Federal Court of Justice ruled that anyone publishing pro-Nazi material on the internet can be subject to German law, regardless of his or her country of origin.
The court found that an Australian national could be liable under legislation that bans the glorification of the Nazis and any denial of the Holocaust. A significant difference between the cases is that the German court had no power to punish the Australian national, unless he enters Germany.
Yahoo!'s prosecution is separate from a civil lawsuit against Yahoo! over the same issue, which was filed in 2000 by the French Union of Jewish students and the International Anti-Racism and Anti-Semitism League.
The two groups were seeking a court order obliging Yahoo! to make all auctions in question inaccessible to internet users in France and its territories.
That case led to a landmark ruling in France, with a Paris court ordering Yahoo! to block internet users in France from accessing its auction sites selling Nazi memorabilia.
The court reasoned that French law prohibits the display or sale of anything that incites racism. It was the first time a French court had issued such an order on a foreign company.
Yahoo! then asked a US federal court to declare that the company was not obliged to obey the French ruling. The Californian court agreed with Yahoo!'s arguments. But the two French groups appealed the decision. That appeal is currently being considered.