the idea of the internet as some sort of Wild West where rules simply don't apply took a serious hit last week when a judge in France demanded that the auction arm of online portal Yahoo! stop selling Nazi-related materials. The judgment essentially forced Yahoo! to take a stand. Since April, when the suit was launched by anti-hate groups claiming that the Web auctioneer was breaking France's anti-Nazi laws, the company has refused to ban Nazi and Ku Klux Klan-related merchandise on its server.
One excuse was that while selling Nazi goods might be illegal in France, Italy and Germany, the U.S.-based company wasn't breaking any American laws. The other relied more on the idea that the Internet is an unpoliced landscape where anything goes. So up until last week, you could still bid for SS field caps, Hitler youth posters, Nazi rings and Klan pen knives.
Yahoo!'s understandable reluctance to get involved in Internet policing underscores just how difficult it is to restrict what's actually happening online these days.
The company will be installing onto its auction site software that monitors what people are selling and flags any potentially offensive items for further review. Sounds reasonable, but also impossible to uphold.
For all the hype about stomping out hate on the Net, it's still embarrassingly easy to find and buy Nazi- and Klan-related paraphernalia on the Web, and no place has more Hitler badges and swastika pins than Internet auction megastore eBay.
eBay prohibits the sale of body parts, Cuban cigars, alcohol and TV descramblers, but hate material is still OK.
A search for SS-related auctions coughed up 167 items, including a mint-condition field cap and uniform, badges, recruiting posters and cutlery. More than 70 Klan-related pieces are also available, ranging from incendiary newspaper clippings to 100-per-cent cotton arm bands.
There are also more than 3,000 other Nazi-affiliated items for sale, including swastika arm bands, daggers, saucers and helmets. None of this is buried or cryptically labelled, though much of it is posted under the guise of "historical or military interest." It's also expressly noted that this merchandise is not to be shipped to France, Germany or Italy.
Questions about whether eBay will be following Yahoo! with an anti-hate policy of its own are referred to eBay's guidelines for prohibited and potentially offensive items. Under eBay's regulations, Nazi- and Klan-related goods are classified as "questionable."
The site officially allows for the sale of KKK- and Nazi-affiliated products, but only if they are more than 50 years old, thereby "allowing the community to learn from the past" without promoting hatred. Again, it sounds fine, but as Yahoo! will soon learn, enforcing these guidelines is another matter. Despite eBay's assurances, hundreds of white-power, Nazi-friendly items well under 50 years old remain listed, mostly in the form of music. Just don't use the word Nazi in your search.
White-power label Resistance seems to use the auction site as a clearing house for its records, and there are dozens of albums, belt buckles and lighters featuring notorious skinhead band Skrewdriver for sale, again all in the open.
If this is eBay's idea of restricting hate, it isn't working.
SITE OF THE WEEK www.virtualcrack.com
An oldie but a goodie. Sending rocks of crack cocaine through the mail can be a messy undertaking, with potential jail time at the other end. This site offers a convenient alternative, allowing you to send your pals virtual crack. A wide selection is offered, ranging from plain old rocks to classy crack on black velvet and even a crackhead starter kit.
Funnier than it should be.