Four million CompuServe customers have been locked out of sexually explicit portions of the Internet, by order of prosecutors in Germany.
An official of the Ohio-based on-line computer service described the move as “just a temporary suspension.” But it has infuriated Internet users and civil libertarians in the United States, while drawing praise from an anti-pornography activist.
The incident also illustrates the unexpected problems that can arise when national governments try to regulate international computer networks.
CompuServe has about 200,000 customers in Germany. The company offers its own menu of on-line services, as well as access to the worldwide Internet. CompuServe places some limits on the materials it allows on its own services, but the company does not attempt to censor Internet materials.
The trouble began Nov. 23, when officials of the Munich police and prosecutor’s office launched an investigation of materials that CompuServe was making available to its customers over the Internet.
They particularly were concerned about the Usenet, an Internet service that acts as a worldwide bulletin board. There are more than 15,000 “newsgroups” or sections on the Usenet, covering a vast number of subjects. But dozens of the newsgroups, with names such as alt.binaries.pictures.erotica, contain explicit sexual materials, including child pornography.
Munich officials selected about 200 newsgroups that contained materials they considered offensive.
Mareille Bureick, CompuServe’s spokeswoman in Munich, said no legal action was taken against CompuServe. But prosecutors said the newsgroups contained materials that violated German obscenity laws and that CompuServe must stop distributing the material in Munich.
However, the company’s entire network is run from server computers at its headquarters in Columbus. “Right now, we don’t possess any technology where we can block access in Germany and leave it open in France or anywhere else,” said CompuServe spokeswoman Daphne Kent.
CompuServe could comply with the prosecutors’ demands only by removing the newsgroups from its service altogether, which it did on Dec. 23.
CompuServe has refused to reveal which newsgroups have been banned.
It didn’t take long for American users to miss their favorite newsgroups.
“Well, it seems to me that there is now censorship,” wrote one customer in CompuServe’s private newsgroup. “All my alt.binaries.pictures.erotica newsgroups have disappeared.”
By Wednesday, CompuServe customers had begun to learn that German officials were behind the change, and some were enraged.
Kent said CompuServe is investigating new software or hardware systems that would allow the company to limit customer access to the Internet, depending on the laws in a particular country.
xxxx AT ISSUE Dozens of Usenet newsgroups contain explicit sexual materials. Munich officials selected about 200 newsgroups, available through CompuServe, they considered offensive.