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America Online Added to Probe Over Inciting Racism

February 2, 1996

BERLIN (AP) _ Prosecutors trying to keep Germans from reading neo-Nazi propaganda on the Internet have notified America Online Inc. that it may be charged with inciting racial hatred.

Last week, prosecutors served similar notice to another U.S.-based computer on-line service, CompuServe Inc. of Columbus, Ohio, and T-Online, a division of the German phone company.

Publishing or distributing neo-Nazi literature or literature denying the Holocaust occurred is illegal in Germany. Violators can be charged with inciting racial hatred, but it is unclear how such laws can be enforced in the free-for-all atmosphere of cyberspace.

Prosecutors in Mannheim are considering bringing incitement charges against the three Internet providers in Germany for allowing access to material posted on the Internet by Ernst Zuendel, a German neo-Nazi living in Toronto.

Anyone can create a site on the Internet using a server, a computer that stores images and texts and makes them available to people using America Online, CompuServe or services that provide access to the Internet.

T-Online, Germany’s largest Internet access provider, responded to the prosecutors’ investigations by blocking its 1 million subscribers from gaining access to the computer in California where Zuendel had posted his tracts.

Computer users accused T-Online of overreacting because the block also prevented them from reaching more than 1,500 other sites on that part of the network.

CompuServe, with 4 million subscribers worldwide, including 220,000 in Germany, has not blocked the California server but said it was working with the prosecutors to find a solution.

America Online spokesman Ingo Reese in Hamburg said his company also was happy to work with the prosecutors. The company is ``totally opposed″ to illegal propaganda, he said, but argued that commercial on-line companies have as much control over materials posted on the Internet as telephone companies have over their customers’ conversations.

America Online, based in Vienna, Va., only began operating in Germany in December in a joint venture with a German company, Bertelsmann AG. The joint venture has 40,000 subscribers in Germany; America Online has 4.5 million customers worldwide.

Censorship on the Internet has long been a topic of debate among computer users. The controversy heated up in December, when CompuServe blocked its subscribers worldwide from gaining access to sex-oriented areas of the Internet because of pressure from prosecutors in another German state, Bavaria, trying to clamp down on child pornography.

Zuendel successfully appealed his 1988 conviction in Canada for publishing false statements about the Holocaust in his pamphlet ``Did 6 Million Really Die?″ He was convicted of inciting racial hatred during a 1991 visit to Germany and ordered to pay the equivalent of $9,000.

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