The conviction of a former Compuserve manager for distributing pornography over the Internet has provoked strong opposition in the Internet world.
Felix Somm, formally head of Compuserve?s German division, was given a two-year suspended sentence last Thursday by a Bavarian court after a three-year investigation into illicit material that was accessed through the Compuserve service (see Newswire 28 May).
This was a key test case as governments worldwide struggle to form a policy for regulating a global and constantly changing medium. But it was a judgement that most thought was too harsh.
Jonathan Steel, chief executive of IT research company The Bathwick Group, said: ?It?s absolutely ridiculous. I don?t see how the ISPs can be held responsible. The content is so huge and in a state of flux the whole time.?
David Kennedy, chief executive of the UK Internet Service Providers' Association, agreed: ?I think it is disappointing and inappropriate and that it goes against the spirit of the Internet.?
A Compuserve spokesman said: ?We are surprised and disappointed by the decision, which appears to reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the unique characteristics of the Internet.?
Somm will appeal against the decision and has the backing of his former employer. ?We believe Somm has been scapegoated because the people who are responsible for putting this material on the Internet cannot be brought to court, as it was generated outside Germany," said Compuserve.
Critics of the verdict liken it to convicting a telephone company for what is said over its lines, while those in support compare it to holding print publications responsible for content - an argument Steel thinks is spurious. ?They are drawing parallels with an editor of a newspaper and you just can?t do that,? he said. ?The Internet is a global medium and it not owned by anyone.?
Many ISPs do have concerns about unregulated content, but favour self regulation and putting responsibility on the consumer - perhaps by giving away free filtering software, as Virgin Net does.
Such software allows consumers to block designated sites and Steel believes putting the responsibility into the hands of individuals, rather than the ISPs, is the right way to go. ?There has to be a level of personal responsibility," he commented.
But he also recommends that ISPs come up with a 'best efforts code?, with a possible fine if they are not seen to be doing their best to eradicate the worst content.
Most UK ISPs are remaining tightlipped about the implications for their business of the German decision, and some are presenting the verdict as a purely German issue. The ISPA's Kennedy said that, although the ruling could be damaging to Germany, "it is not an issue for the UK and it is likely to be a one-off".
Compuserve claims there may be a knock-on effect for Germany, if overseas companies fear similar action if they offer Net services in the country. ?We believe the verdict is damaging to the German image of the Internet,? a Compuserve spokesman said.
According to US reports, four ISPs are already questioning whether to operate an online service in Germany.
But Steel believes any conservative region or country could take a similar line. Even in the US, where the trend has been away from strict regulation, there has been a powerful campaign behind censorship.
The Compuserve case took place in Bavaria, a staunchly conservative and religious German state that has a special police unit dedicated to hunting down child pornography and anti-Nazi literature distributed over the Net.
The verdict came as even more of a shock as the prosecutors changed their arguments during the case and agreed with the defence that Compuserve could not have blocked all the banned material. The Multimedia Law passed in Germany last August says that ISPs are not liable for content accessible through their service unless they are aware of the material and have the technology to block it.
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