A French court has asked online auction firm eBay to pay $61 million in damages to luxury goods purveyor LVMH. The latter has claimed that nine out of 10 Louis Vuitton bags and Dior perfumes that are sold on eBay are fakes.
The court decision revives an old debate on the extent to which Internet sites such as eBay can be held responsible for what others do there. There have been several attempts across the world to hold YouTube responsible for blasphemous videos put on its site by users. Thailand forced YouTube to pull off videos that made fun of its popular and revered monarch. On the other hand, India has seen the unfortunate incident in 2004 when Avnish Bajaj, then CEO of Bazee.com (which was later bought over by eBay) was arrested because a sexually explicit film of a New Delhi student was put on sale on his company’s auction website.
There are further complications in the LVMH case. It seeks to prevent its luxury goods from being sold through channels other than its stores. But the general problem persists — who is responsible for online content? Economist and blogger Daniel Altman asks: “What if countries around the world sued — and fined — Amazon for selling books they considered libellous or blasphemous?” And these questions get even more difficult in the age of Web 2.0, with its online communities and social networking sites.
Some countries have used blanket bans to shut out content they do not like.
We have earlier commented in these columns on cases such as the one about how protestors in Egypt used Facebook to stand up against the government. It was a case of dissent in online alleyways and the heavy hand of the state. But these are often part of overall political repression. The LVMH case has more ambiguous business issues such as the ability to protect brand value.
We are generally in favour of minimal government intervention in such cases. The Internet economy is still evolving and we hope that it will spontaneously develop its own institutions to deal with such complicated issues. Till then, rather than having blanket rules, national courts would do well to inch ahead on a case-by-case basis.
Who should police Internet content? Should it be policed? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org