Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf has been removed from Google Print after the German computer magazine Chip reported that segments of the Nazi dictator’s book were available in English on Google’s online full-text archive of books.
The legal position of Mein Kampf in Germany is not entirely clear. It is probably banned under the sections of German law that deal with inciting racial hatred or glorifying the former Nazi regime. It’s not available in shops and the state of Bavaria, which owns the copyright until 2015, has always prevented the publication of any new German edition. Public opinion in Germany was enough to get Google — a California company whose servers are in the United States — to act in this case, but if they had not, it’s not inconceivable that the company might have ended up in a German court.
It’s an important reminder of the great unsettled issue of how conventional media law operates on the Internet. Which country’s media laws apply when a server is in country A, a poster is country B and a reader is in country C?
Google’s lawyers are no doubt aware that European bans on Nazi materials are the basis for one of the key precidents in this tricky legal issue. In 2000, a French judge ordered Yahoo! to remove Nazi memorobilia from its American auction site because the auctions were illegal in France but still accessible to people there. An American court later refused to enforce the order because it would be a violation of the First Amendment. But a Federal appeals court panel this year overturned the ruling and agreed to hear the case again before it’s full bench. Millions of dollars in French fines are at stake for Yahoo!. It seems Google is taking no chances even though German courts decided not to pursue Yahoo!.
British-style libel claims and court reporting rules for trials in progress are another sticking point. British libel law creates standing in British courts for anyone who is aggrieved by something that was available to be read in the court’s jurisdiction. Australian courts, have in the past ruled that anything accessible Down Under is subject to Australian libel claims. This could lead to forum shopping by rich claimants willing to travel to Australia or Britain to sue online publishers in their own countries. But if you are based in the US and have no assets in Britain or Australia, you should be pretty safe, since the US Supreme Court has little time for British libel claims, which it has called “repugnant to the First Amendment”.
Tim Worstall points out another example of this recurring problem: gag orders on local reporting of trials have become much more complex on the internet. An Australian judge’s gag order on reporting of the Peter Falconio murder trial is forcing the Guardian web site (based in Britain) to report as though it were a local paper in the Northern Territories, because its reports are accessible to people there.