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CompuServe Action Has Worldwide Effect

CompuServe has temporarily suspended about 200 newsgroups containing hard-core sexual content, in response to a request from German legal authorities. The effect is worldwide due to a lack of appropriate technology.

    As CNET reported on Wednesday, CompuServe has temporarily suspended about 200 newsgroups containing hard-core sexual content, in response to a request from German legal authorities. The material violates German pornography laws, according to a federal prosecutor in Munich.

    Some say the move was misguided. "This is an attempt by the German government to put their finger in the dike to stop a leak," says Jerry Michalski, analyst with EDventure Holdings, "but what they don't realize is that the dam has already broken."

    Germany's request comes at a time when the United States government is trying to ban "indecent" material on the Internet, and some say that CompuServe's decision will foster Net censorship. "It seems to be a trend that is building, and I wouldn't be surprised if we had widespread closing of all newsgroups in the United States," says Andre Bacard, author of the Computer Privacy Handbook. "CompuServe's decision will definitely be cited in future decisions on Internet censorship," he adds.

    Others agree. "The German request clearly opens the door for the destruction of the Internet as an open forum," says Neal Horsley of the Christian Consumers Association. "Instead of offering a newsgroup-editing solution to the German CompuServe clients, CompuServe has bowed to pressure tactics," he adds.

    CompuServe officials say they are trying to restore access to some of the newsgroups but must comply with German laws. In doing so, however, the service blocked access to all subscribers worldwide. Officials say they lack the technology to block access from a specific country.

    Even if the technology did exist, some say the problem would not be solved. "Many of the things they might try to fix this can be gotten around," said Michalski, "and may result in CompuServe becoming a less desirable service."

    If this trend persists, could such actions lead to conflicts between nations? Michalski thinks so. "If there's a World War III," he warns, "it won't be about an archduke's assassination--it will be about bits crossing borders."