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Calling himself lucky to have been part of the birth of Internet law — and to have cashed in on his stock options — Yahoo Inc.’s general counsel, John Place, says he’s retiring from the company. “I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish,” said Place, 46, who was hired as Yahoo’s very first lawyer in 1997. “I built the team from myself to over 55 attorneys worldwide,” he said. “But over the years the job has become more of an administrator. In the early days, I was really hands-on and had to deal with really new legal issues before anyone else did.” Place was officially replaced by Jonathan Sobel, one of the Internet portal company’s six associate GCs. Place recommended Sobel for the job, a choice he said was hard to make from a pool of about five other Yahoo lawyers. Place came to Yahoo from a senior corporate counsel position at Adobe Systems, where he had been for six years. Prior to that, the 1985 Stanford Law School graduate had been at Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison. He said he was drawn to Yahoo because of his fascination with the “democratizing potential of the Internet.” During his tenure, Place pushed Congress to adjust the language of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in favor of free speech and was a driving force behind the founding of the Internet lobbying association Netcoalition.com. He said he’d like to continue to be involved in public policy and First Amendment issues concerning the Internet. While at Yahoo, he negotiated the company’s first merchant agreement with Amazon.com and drafted agreements and policies on issues ranging from content licensing to electronic commerce. For the last few years the company has been scrutinized by watchdog groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which questioned the company’s commitment to protecting privacy. Last spring the company was sued for violating privacy rights when it disclosed the identity of a man who posted comments about his employer on a Yahoo message board. In response, Yahoo claimed a strong record of protecting privacy and said its policy did not preclude it from disclosing such information. The plaintiffs later dropped the suit. And in December, Yahoo appealed to a U.S. court to dismiss a French court’s orders that it re-engineer its servers to prevent French users from accessing Nazi paraphernalia. The case is pending. “As one of the major players in this field, Yahoo has been the focus of a lot of attention as far as developing standards of how users will use the Internet,” said Lauren Gelman, director of public policy for San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Being the first lawyer hired by the company, John was the first to grapple with emerging legal and policy issues confronting the company and often the industry,” Yahoo CFO Sue Decker wrote in a company-wide e-mail announcing Place’s departure. “This is one of the reasons his team respects him — since he has essentially done all the jobs first, he has an unusual degree of empathy for the challenges Yahoo’s attorneys face daily.” Place said he was stuck with a hard choice of who to endorse as a successor. He said his own management style “pushed decisions down through the ranks,” allowing his team to grow comfortable calling its own shots. Sobel, who managed the team that handled complex technology deals and litigation, was hired in 1998 as Yahoo’s fourth lawyer. Prior to that, he had been a licensing attorney with Electronics For Imaging and with Chipson Technologies. “He has done a very, very wide variety of the functions that we in legal are responsible for, and he has a very varied background spanning litigation, licensing, etc.,” Place said. Place said he plans to stay on until the end of March as a “resource-at-large.” Following that, he said he will spend his time helping his daughter with multiplication tables and possibly taking a trip to Australia. “John’s always had a good sense of what he wants to do with his life, and he joined Yahoo specifically to pursue his passion for the Internet,” said Joshua Green, the Venture Law Group partner who serves as Yahoo’s outside general counsel and is a longtime friend of Place. “When his passions start to change he has no problems gong towards that,” he said. “John’s passion right now is for his family.”

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