In a move that could be a test case in the power of public authorities to regulate an online service, Bavarian prosecutors said the CompuServe manager was being charged with aiding in the distribution of child pornography.
The indictment was issued on February 26 but was not made public until yesterday. The announcement does not name the CompuServe executive who has been indicted but the managing director of CompuServe's German subsidiary is Felix Somm.
"CompuServe Incorporated believes that the accusation against Mr. Somm is entirely groundless and that he will ultimately be vindicated", the company said in a statement from its headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. "We plan to vigorously oppose this action against Mr. Somm and to fully support him through this personally trying period."
CompuServe spokesman Steve Conway said German authorities are putting CompuServe in the impossible situation of having to censor the Internet.
"People can get to what's on the Internet", he said, adding that the second-largest online service does not have much control over Net content unless it blocks sites entirely. CompuServe does allow members to screen material individually using Cyber Patrol.
The charges follow an investigation that began at the end of 1995, when prosecutors forced CompuServe to shut down access to more than 200 Internet newsgroups, some of which were suspected of displaying child pornography, which is illegal in Germany, as well as in the United States.
Despite widespread doubts about the liability of online services for content on their network, the Bavarian prosecutors believe such services should be held responsible when writings or images outlawed in Germany but on computers somewhere else in the world are made accessible to Germans through the Internet.
The prosecutors said the charges raised against the CompuServe director include violations of youth protection laws and laws against child pornography.
They cited transmission of images of violent sex, sex with children, and sex with animals, which the prosecutors said the CompuServe manager could have prevented from being distributed over the company's network in Germany.
The indictment also includes charges against the CompuServe executive for allowing a computer game to be transmitted over the company's network that includes photographs of Adolf Hitler and Nazi party symbols such as the swastika, which are not allowed to be displayed publicly in Germany.