CompuServe Germany chief charged with Net pornography

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The question of whether online service providers can be held responsible for content on the Internet was thrown into sharp relief this week when the managing director of CompuServe's German division, Felix Somm, was hauled up by Bavarian state authorities on charges of allowing the distribution of banned material, particularly that with pornographic and racist content.

The prosecutor's office, which had been investigating CompuServe for more than a year, claims that the company had the technical and organizational ability to block such material from several newsgroups. It also adds that the company is still flouting the law by providing access to computer games which include glorifying pictures of Adolf Hitler and swastikas, which are banned under German law.

CompuServe Munich said on April 17 that it is not in a position to block off Internet newsgroups and that the content of these groups changes constantly. It argues that online service providers such as itself can't be held responsible for Internet content. A statement says the accusation against Somm is entirely unfounded and that CompuServe does not believe he will be indicted. "We will support him anyway, but we don't want to make further comments because of the pending proceeding," the statement reads.

The German parliament is currently debating a draft new media law that would recognize that Internet service providers cannot be held responsible for content. CompuServe set up in Germany in 1991 and now claims to have 359,000 users in the German-speaking region (which includes Austria and part of Switzerland) and 900,000 in Europe overall. AOL Bertelsmann claims 300,000.

Copyright April 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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