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France's MultiMania Sued Over Neo-Nazi Site On Its Server

In a case that points up the legal question mark over site-hosting companies in France, a Jewish student organization this week filed suit against MultiMania over a neo-Nazi site that appeared on that company's server.

"We cannot, from a moral point of view, allow things like this to be published," said Ygal El Harrar, president of the French Union of Jewish Students (UEJF), which is headquartered in Paris and filed the complaint. MultiMania had not received notification about the suit as of Tuesday evening, according to Vincent Potier, its marketing director.

The site in question contained about a dozen pages extolling Hilter, the S.S. and National Socialism, as well as statements calling for violence against Jews and minorities. El Harrar said the UEJF informed Multimania about it on February 17. According to Potier, MultiMania removed the site promptly, then removed it again the next day after finding it back up.

"They took much longer than that, far too long," said El Harrar. "On the Internet, information can reach a huge amount of people in a very short time. The damage was done."

He said the site's name used the initials of the Nazi party, and that the company should have caught that immediately. However, Potier countered it is technically impossible for a host company to check all the pages it hosts.

"We have 360,000 members and host 3.2 web million pages. Furthermore, we don't have the legal right to control content," he said.

Web companies should be obligated to hire the necessary human resources, El Harrar said. "Ten employees working fulltime could check that many pages every day," he said.

The UEJF is seeking only FF1 (U.S. 16 cents) in symbolic damages and the name the person or persons that created the site. For its part, MultiMania is considering filing suit against the creator for breaching the rules of conduct to which all customers must agree. However, it declined to identify the author, citing protection-of-privacy laws.

Because France has no clear laws on the subject, it has been largely left up to individual judges to determine host companies' legal responsibility for the content of sites on their servers. Judgements have been erratic.

In perhaps the most notorious, in April 1999 a court ordered the tiny host company Alernet to pay FF405,000 (US$67,500) to the supermodel Estelle Hallyday, in compensation for nude photos of her that appeared on an Alternet-hosted site. The judge equated a server with traditional media like newspapers or magazines.

Yahoo! France and i-bazar have recently faced similar problems.

French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, calling the Alternet decision "worrying," said last year that a balance needed to be found between freedom of speech and basic rights such as protection of privacy, with a solution that also applied to providers of technical services.

A year later, a law that would clarify rules applying to host companies, the Bloche amendment, is before the National Assembly. However, it appears unlikely that it will go so far as to give French hosts the protection that U.S. companies enjoy.



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