Davos Newbies Home

At Davos 2000, there was a solitary session on patents, where Dave Winer was apparently the only person to understand the iniquity of patents for simple web and programming ideas. In the preliminary programme for Davos 2001, there are a couple of patent sessions.

Guess what? My friends in Geneva responsible for the programme are having great difficulty finding anyone who will speak up for patents. On this issue, as so many, the Forum is impartial. But in the interests of a good session, there is a need to present both sides of the debate. So far, Carl Shapiro, Mike Dertouzos and Didier Lombard are on the side of reason, with no one against.

Now it may be that the argument is being won. I fear, however, that the pro-patent people are lying low and staying greedy, happy to let the theorists spout until the cows come home. The good news is if the pro-patent crowd stays out of the argument, well-meaning folk may be able to force through action to stave off the patent scourge stifling the Internet.

***Free speech and the Internet
I’ve never been an absolutist on free speech, like the American Civil Liberties Union. Hate literature, for example, has no place in a sound society. But drawing the lines is never easy.

So reaching a conclusion about the specific French court case against Yahoo! poses problems for me. I approve of the French anti-racist laws, which led the court to require Yahoo! to bar French access to Nazi memorabilia on its auction site. But I see the absurdity of enforcing these laws on the Internet, and I worry profoundly about extrapolating the judgement to other situations.

In brief, the court has given Yahoo! three months to block French nationals from accessing the relevant parts of its site (the material has already been taken off Yahoo! France, so it’s just the main Yahoo! site that is at issue). Court-appointed experts decided that Yahoo! could institute a system of registration and password checks to enforce the system.

Today’s Financial Times has an excellent analysis on the chilling effect the ruling could have. Does it mean that all sites need to obey the laws of all of the world’s 200-odd countries? Will people shop through different jurisdictions to waylay sites engaging in activities most of us find admirable: highlighting human rights abuses, for example, or exposing corruption (there are plenty of countries where such assertions might be libellous or prohibited).

Yahoo! is being a bit ingenuous, as the French judge pointed out: it already prohibits the sale, for example, of drugs, human organs and live animals; it could do the same with Nazi memorabilia. But the issue of who has what jurisdiction over the Internet will be with us for a long time to come.

***Minor rant
I start every day by reading the print edition of the Financial Times, and I often link to its website. But someone there should wake up about the profound navigational inadequacies of its website. I defy anyone going to FT.com to find Jean Eaglesham’s analysis of the French ruling, linked above. The news story is on the home page. Fine. But neither the home page nor the story page contains any reference to Lost Connection. It isn’t even available when you go to “Comment and Analysis”, even though the piece is clearly categorised there in the newspaper.

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