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German CompuServe head quits

The man Bavarian prosecutors blame for allowing smut on CompuServe's system resigns as the head of German operations.

The man Bavarian prosecutors are blaming for distributing pornography on CompuServe's (CSRV) system has resigned as the head of the online service's German operations.

Felix Somm, general manager for CompuServe in Germany, today announced he is resigning to start his own business. The resignation was unrelated to the indictment, according to CompuServe spokesman Steve Conway

While managers frequently come and go in the Internet business, they usually don't gain the notoriety that Somm has achieved through no apparent efforts of his own.

In February, prosecutors in Bavaria indicted Somm because he was running CompuServe when the online service allegedly distributed child pornography. They made the indictment public in April.

The purported pornography was distributed through Internet newsgroups, which CompuServe carries but doesn't control. The company is fighting the indictment, calling it groundless.

Conway said Somm's resignation will have no bearing on CompuServe's defense of Conway. "We are going to be vigorously opposing the case, the same as if he were employed by us."

Munich prosecutors are still deciding whether there is enough merit to try the case, which could have a major impact on the Internet internationally.

While online services can have a say in what they put on their own services, they shouldn't be held accountable for information on the Internet in general, over which they have no direct control, CompuServe is arguing.

Other online services such as America Online (AOL) have argued the same thing in different situations.

The charges follow an investigation that began at the end of 1995, when prosecutors forced CompuServe to shut down access to more than 200 Internet newsgroups, some of which were suspected of displaying child pornography, which is illegal in Germany as well as in the United States.

Despite widespread doubts about the liability of online services for content on their network, the Bavarian prosecutors believe such services should be held responsible when writings or images outlawed in Germany but on computers somewhere else in the world are made accessible to Germans through the Internet.

The Internet community has rallied behind CompuServe in this case, with cyberliberties groups sending a letter to German chancellor Helmut Kohl urging him to call off the investigation, saying its impossible to censor the Net.

Meanwhile, the German parliament is considering laws that would relax regulations on the Net. The groups, including international organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, urged the passage of such laws.