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Europe debates Net growth, limits

Interest in both regulating information and promoting expansion on the Internet is heating up in Europe.

Interest in both regulating information and promoting expansion on the Internet is heating up in Europe, a fast-growing market for online consumers and Web developers.

Following similar efforts in the United States, European leaders met last week to discuss regulating information on the Internet, the Wall Street Journal reported today. The discussions are expected to continue next week as an international audience descends upon Paris for the Fifth International World Wide Web Conference, a meeting that will bring together representatives from Internet service providers, technology companies, the World Wide Web Consortium, and other organizations from various countries.

Last week, European Union telecommunications and culture ministers met in Bologna, Italy, to consider controlling Internet access to prevent exchange of criminal or offensive content. The ministers have requested a report on the issue to recommend action by member states.

Germany, for one, hopes to minimize regulation of the Internet but expects companies that post information to the Net to police themselves, German research and technology minister Juergen Ruettgers, told Reuters yesterday. Germany expects content providers to demonstrate self-restraint and not post materials that would be considered illegal offline, including neo-Nazi propaganda and child pornography. Germany currently is home to 2 million Net users.

The U.S. Congress is one step ahead of the Europeans in attempting to regulate potentially objectionable material on the Internet with the Communications Decency Act, which prohibits "obscene and indecent" material from being transmitted over the Internet. Civil rights groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations have launched a barrage of legal challenges to the CDA on the grounds that it violates free speech and is unnecessary because filtering technology lets parents restrict their children's Internet access.

But while the U.S. struggles with the strictures of a single constitution, Europeans must determine policies that apply to all 15 member nations. Government officials and industry analysts alike are skeptical that a single European standard for Internet decency can be enacted and enforced.

"The definition of offensive material differs from country to country," said Stephan Somogyi, senior editor at industry newsletter Digital Media. "Part of the problem is you'd have a hard time coming up with a Union-wide standard. I find it difficult to conceive of successful legislation that will put the onus [of Internet control] on ISPs [Internet service providers]."

While the U.S. currently dominates the Net with 64 percent of all Internet hosts, Net usage in several European nations, notably Scandinavian countries, is rising rapidly. Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Netherlands, Sweden, and Finland together account for 18 percent of Internet hosts, according to a recent survey from Network Wizards.

Online services in some of those countries have already responded to pressure from their governments to regulate content. Earlier this year, CompuServe banned access to 200 sex-related Usenet newsgroups under pressure from German prosecutors. The online service eventually restored access to groups in February but agreed to adopt filtration software that allows parents to restrict access to Internet sites.

Related stories:
Two more challenges to CDA filed
Germans ponder their own CDA
CompuServe lightens up on newsgroups