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Conservatives mad at CompuServe

CompuServe's decision to restore access to all but 5 of a list of 200 newsgroups that German authorities deemed too smutty for consumption by minors has conservative groups ready for their first fight over the Communications Decency Act.

    CompuServe's decision to restore access to all but 5 of a list of 200 newsgroups that German authorities deemed too smutty for consumption by minors has conservative groups ready for their first fight over the Communications Decency Act.

    Although the company combined the announcement of the decision with the release of software to let parents control their children's access to CompuServe sites, the antipornography forces charge that CompuServe has given in to purveyors of obscenity.

    CompuServe's decision may prove the first major test of the Communications Decency Act passed last week, which empowers the federal government to prosecute anyone who posts what can be deemed obscene content in a forum accessible to minors.

    "Less than one week after the Communications Decency Act was signed into law by President Clinton, it is obvious that the law, designed to curb computer pornography, is not working and never will work," said Patrick Trueman, director of government affairs for the American Family Association, in a prepared statement.

    The Washington-based American Family Association wants the government to eliminate a provision in the Act that protects access providers from criminal liability. The group is urging other pro-family groups to support a more stringent bill from Congressman Henry Hyde that would allow the government to prosecute companies like CompuServe.

    The Family Research Council, another conservative group in Washington, is already lobbying the Justice Department to prosecute CompuServe for its decision, even under the current legislation, according to the New York Times.

    Although the Justice Department agreed last week to not prosecute anyone under the Communications Decency Act for seven days, a federal judge in Philadelphia is expected to rule today on whether to grant a temporary restraining order requested by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other parties to prevent prosecution until "obscenity" is further defined under the law.

    Most of the anticensorship forces praised CompuServe for upholding the position that online content cannot and should not be controlled by a government agency.

    "The suspension was temporary from the beginning because there are 16,000 newsgroups out there, and it's impractical for [German officials] to expect us to monitor all of that," said Russ Robinson, manager of corporate communications for CompuServe. "We told the Munich prosecutor that we're not responsible for content on the Net because we can't control it. If they have problems with the content, they should go to the people that produce it."

    CompuServe had blocked access last December for its 4.7 million users worldwide to about 200 newsgroups after German authorities alleged that the newsgroups contained sexually explicit material. The company is maintaining the ban against 5 groups that CompuServe officials say contain child pornography.

    CompuServe tried to placate antipornography groups by releasing parental control software called Cyber Patrol, made by Microsystems Software. Similar software is already available for America Online and Prodigy. SurfWatch Software also provides parental control software for the Internet.

    The free software allows parents to restrict Net access throughout the day, limit time spent online, and block access to sites of their choice. The Cyber Patrol software comes loaded with a CyberNot Block List of 6,000 CompuServe resources that contain material that may not be suitable for children. The company is also offering a monthly newsletter called Child Safety Online.

    "We had been working on parental controls and planned on releasing them in the spring, but with this issue and the Telecom Bill going on, we decided to speed up the development," said CompuServe's Robinson. "We also told the Munich prosecutor that we can give parents power to control access, and he seemed happy with what we had to offer."

    This eagerness to please convinced some observers that CompuServe, far from being a model defender of online free speech, had actually given in to government pressure to limit access to certain sorts of services.

    "It's clear that the Germans had the final say and because of that we're going to see online services tailor their policies to the wishes of various governments around the world. I think that's a potentially dangerous precedent because the government won't be happy until the content on the Net is reduced to nothing," said David Sobel, legal counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

    Sobel is not alone in thinking that CompuServe's decision sends out a mixed message.

    "The good news is that the ability of blocking software demonstrates why legislation like the Communications Decency Act is not necessary," said Ira Machefsky, an analyst with the GIGA Information Group market research group. "The bad news is that it shows how various governments around the world are going to start imposing their own standards on the content of the Net."

    Machefsky contends that software like Cyber Patrol will not prevent legal confrontation with groups like the American Family Association and the Family Research Council.

    "The filtering technology is only a temporary compromise, but it doesn't solve any legal problems in terms of publishing vs. reading," said Machefsky.

    Sobel, on the other hand, thinks that Cyber Patrol and other parental control packages are better than nothing.

    "It's another form of censorship, but at least the users have control," Sobel said.