Angry Users Call CompuServe's Censorship Overdone; Boycotts Threatened
Dec. 30, 1995
BERLIN (AP) _ In the old German saying, it was like using a cannon to shoot down a sparrow.
To angry Germans who were on-line Friday, that was what CompuServe did by blocking worldwide access to sexually oriented areas of the Internet because of Bavarian prosecutors' investigation into on-line child pornography in Germany.
``Do we abolish automobile traffic because of a few speeders?'' asked one incensed user on CompuServe's German-language Internet forum.
U.S.-based CompuServe's decision keeps all 4 million of its customers around the world from 200 ``newsgroups'' on a message-board-style section of the Internet global computer network known as Usenet.
CompuServe's action _ overreaction, some Germans said after Thursday's announcement of the blocked access _ followed Bavarian police investigators' Nov. 22 search of CompuServe's Unterhaching offices outside Munich, said Arno Edelmann, the office's product manager.
``Under the law, the owner of the networks bear responsibility for what is disseminated across them,'' said Munich prosecutor Manfred Wick. ``The suspicion arose that child pornography graphics were being disseminated over the system.''
Without directly threatening criminal charges _ child pornography is punishable by up to a year in prison in Germany _ German officials pressured CompuServe, Edelmann said.
So CompuServe thought it best to block all newsgroups ``where you see some flesh ... Everything that starts with alt.sex something or alt.binaries.pictures,'' Edelmann said. The most explicit Usenet newsgroups usually start with the ``alt.'' prefix.
``It is perhaps an overreaction, but we want to cooperate with the Bavarian prosecutor's office,'' Edelmann said.
Ironically, child pornography is the only pornography that is illegal in Germany, which is far more sexually permissive than the United States. Soft-core material is standard fare on late-night television in Germany, for example.
But CompuServe's German headquarters is in the country's most conservative state, where police tend to be zealous about fighting child pornography.
CompuServe first cut off all Usenet access for its 500,000 European users on Dec. 1, telling subscribers only that the newsgroups were ``temporarily unavailable.''
When CompuServe realized that it lacked the technical ability to block out only German users, it blocked worldwide access and explained why.
``Of course, there are some things on Usenet that are illegal and immoral, but to therefore censor an entire area goes a bit too far,'' one subscriber said on a Compuserve message forum and vowed to start a petition drive.
Some angry CompuServe customers in Germany said they planned to cancel their subscription to the on-line service and seek direct, uncensored Internet access. Others suggested bombarding CompuServe's customer service staff with protests.
Two CompuServe forum leaders protested over what they considered an arbitrary decision and asked that certain newsgroups _ particularly gay-oriented ones _ be reinstated, Edelmann said.
Bavarian prosecutors also contacted CompuServe rival America Online but were satisfied that a child-protection setting on its software could block sex-oriented newsgroups, said Jan Buettner, managing director of America Online's month-old joint venture in Germany.