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German Prosecutor Says CompuServe Alone Decided Which Forums To Ban

January 2, 1996

BERLIN (AP) _ German authorities say the CompuServe on-line service decided on its own which sexually explicit Internet forums to ban its 4 million customers from viewing.

In addition, prosecutors reiterated Tuesday that they never explicitly threatened CompuServe Inc. with criminal charges.

The statements appear to conflict with CompuServe’s explanation last Thursday of why it blocked access to 200 newsgroups. But a CompuServe spokeswoman repeated the company’s initial explanation Tuesday, saying German authorities specified which newsgroups should be banned.

The decision to deny access to the sexually explicit forums set off a swirl of criticism and discussion over censorship on the Internet.

Boasting exponential growth over the past few years, the worldwide computer network today is host to an estimated 40 million users and provides a freewheeling forum for debate on a wide variety of topics.

Newsgroups, where computer users can post messages for all to see _ including text, graphics and sound _ draw discussions on everything from computer games and astrophysics to sexual practices.

Ohio-based CompuServe announced its ban on the 200 newsgroups in a statement last Thursday that said: ``Each of the newsgroups that was suspended was specifically identified to CompuServe by the German authorities as illegal under German criminal law.″

But Munich senior public prosecutor Manfred Wick said Tuesday that his office did not provide CompuServe any such list as part of its investigation of child pornography on the Internet.

``We did not make any stipulations. It was the decision of CompuServe alone,″ he told The Associated Press.

Wick said prosecutors did not threaten CompuServe with criminal charges. Nor have they said exactly what, if any, child pornography of Internet origin they saw via CompuServe’s private network.

A CompuServe-Germany executive, Arno Edelmann, said Tuesday that the decision on which newsgroups would be blocked was made at the company’s Columbus, Ohio headquarters. He said he was not aware of any list being provided by German prosecutors.

``The newsgroups were specifically identified by German officials,″ Daphne Kent, a CompuServe spokeswoman in Ohio, countered Tuesday. ``I don’t know if the German prosecutors are backpedaling a little.″

She said CompuServe’s legal department was in talks with prosecutors ``and that is something that is going to have to be hashed out.″

As for the threat of criminal charges, Kent said: ``We got some information from them (German prosecutors) that there was a real possibility of arrest if we didn’t comply.″

CompuServe is not releasing a list of the barred newsgroups because the list ``is fluid right now″ and the company’s legal department may decide to add or drop groups, she said.

In-house forum leaders, individuals who moderate discussions in the newsgroups, are receiving an avalanche of complaints from users who want certain groups reinstated, Edelmann said.

State police, Wick said, will present a finding before mid-February of what material available on computer networks can be considered criminal and what effect that can have on on-line services.

He said authorities consider on-line services legally responsible for information found on their networks, even if it comes from outside the networks _ as is the case with Internet newsgroups.

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