International cyberliberties groups are protesting the indictment of a German CompuServe executive who's being held accountable for pornography found on the online service.
In a letter today, the groups urged German chancellor Helmut Kohl to call off the investigation of the managing director of the German unit of CompuServe. The indictment was issued on February 26 but was not made public until April 16.
The announcement does not name the CompuServe executive who has been indicted, but the managing director of CompuServe's German subsidiary is Felix Somm.
Bavarian prosecutors said the CompuServe manager was being charged with aiding the distribution of child pornography. The protesting groups say Somm shouldn't be held personally responsible.
"We believe that the prosecution of the CompuServe manager is ill-advised for both technical and regulatory reasons. We also believe that this prosecution violates international norms for the protection of speech and will have a harmful impact on Internet users around the world," the letter states.
The Global Internet Liberty Campaign organized the protest, which includes international organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
The groups argued that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 should protect speech on the Internet: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
Although some online areas such as newsgroups can be blocked by filtering for certain words, the letter cites two technical factors preventing Internet access providers from seeing every piece of information streaming through their services.
"No one can monitor the enormous quantity of network traffic, which may consist of hundreds of thousands of emails, newsgroup messages, files, and Web pages that pass through in dozens of text and binary files," the organizations asserted. "We support CompuServe's claim that it cannot provide material in one country while blocking it in another; such a distinction would require an enormous new infrastructure on top of the current network."
The groups state, however, that they support efforts by the German Parliament to relax regulation of the Net.
"We believe that the measure now under consideration to reduce liability for Internet services will do much to ensure the protection of personal freedoms in the future," the letter adds.
The charges follow an investigation that began at the end of 1995, when prosecutors forced CompuServe to sever access to more than 200 newsgroups, some of which were suspected of displaying child pornography, which is illegal in Germany and the United States.
"CompuServe believes that the accusation against Mr. Somm is entirely groundless and that he will ultimately be vindicated," the company said in a statement from its headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, after the announcement. "We plan to vigorously oppose this action against Mr. Somm and to fully support him through this personally trying period."
Other groups who signed today's letter include the following: Electronic Frontiers in Italy, France, Australia, Spain, and Canada; the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Internet Society, NetAction, Peacefire, Computer Professional for Social Responsibility, Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties, and Derechos Human Rights.
Reuters contributed to this report.