CompuServe Inc. made headlines when it removed all sex-related newsgroups in December. The American service provider announced to its four million customers that the suspended newsgroups had been "specifically identified to CompuServe by the German authorities as illegal under German criminal law." However, the episode soon became mired in a series of contradictory statements as each party moved to protect its own political hide. CompuServe eventually rescinded the ban.
Munich senior public prosecutor Manfred Wick told the Associated Press news agency that, as part of its ongoing investigation of child pornography on the Internet, German police planned to provide CompuServe with criteria outlining what material would be considered criminal and how this might affect online services. The authorities also warned that they consider online services legally responsible for information on their networks, even if it originates on the wider Internet.
However, Wick insisted his office did not provide CompuServe with any kind of a list and never threatened to lay criminal charges. Wick said the decision to remove the newsgroups was CompuServe's alone.
CompuServe-Germany executive Arno Edelmann told AP that he, too, was unaware of any list provided by German prosecutors. He said the decision to block specific newsgroups was made at the company's Columbus, Ohio, headquarters.
In Ohio, CompuServe spokesperson Daphne Kent said the newsgroups were specifically identified by German prosecutors, who told CompuServe there was a real possibility of arrest if the service provider didn't comply.
"I don't know if the German prosecutors are back-pedalling a little," Kent told AP.
Kent declined to provide a list of banned newsgroups because the list "is fluid right now". However, Electronic Frontier Canada, a free-speech lobby group, assembled a list of about 200 banned sites - http://www.efc.ca/
The wide-ranging ban included not only conferences like alt.binaries.pictures.erotica.pre-teen, but also issue-oriented newsgroups such as alt.politics.sex, gay-net.coming-out, and alt.support.disabled.sexuality. And much to the disappointment of some Star Trek and Love Boat fans, alt.sexy.bald.captains was also silenced.
In a news release, EFC urged CompuServe customers to cancel their accounts and expressed disappointment that CompuServe's software doesn't enable it to comply with the concerns of German officials without affecting customers internationally.
William Waybourn, managing director of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), said that denying access to or deleting gay and lesbian newsgroups merely leads to ignorance.
"It is very disturbing that non-sexually-oriented gay and lesbian newsgroups were lumped in with newsgroups that German authorities alleged contained child pornography and other pornographic material."
In early February, CompuServe ended the ban, back-tracking a few steps in the process.
In a news release, CompuServe president and chief executive officer Bob Massey said that, as a result of the German investigation, the service provider only "temporarily suspended" access to the newsgroups (except for five deemed to contain explicit child pornography, which will remain suspended pending further legal investigation). Massey also announced that CompuServe will provide parental controls and content restriction tools.
"Combining parental controls with lifting the newsgroup suspension reaffirms our commitment to online safety for families and our position that responsibility for Internet content lies with those who create it or put it on the Internet, not with the access provider", Massey said.
This must seem like sweet irony for people like Waybourn, who have warned that attempts to block Internet content will prove futile because users can view newsgroups elsewhere or can ask that messages be posted to alternate sites.
After threatening Deutsche Telekom, the national telephone carrier, with criminal charges relating to the availability of Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel's World Wide Web home-page on its T-Online Internet service, access was blocked.
Internet users responded by setting up nearly a dozen mirror sites containing copies of Zundel's propaganda.
Free-speech activists have packaged the controversial information into archival form and have posted messages in Usenet explaining how to access these sites, some of which are linked electronically to Web sites maintained by American universities.
"Instead of limiting the audience for Zundel's propaganda, Germany's clumsy attempt to block access has resulted in the information being copied to new locations in cyberspace and becoming even more accessible", says EFC president David Jones.
Jones says prosecutors are in a bind because, if German universities are prevented from connecting to universities outside the country, it defeats their reason for being on the Internet in the first place.