February 14, 1996
Compuserve to End Ban on Internet Sex Materials
Germany Moves Again to Censor Internet Content (Jan. 29)
By PETER H. LEWISiting a desire to leave Internet censorship to individual tastes rather than government decree, the on-line company Compuserve Inc. said Tuesday that it would restore worldwide access to most of the 200 sex-related computer data bases it had recently blocked under pressure from German prosecutors.
Instead of barring all of its 4.3 million subscribers from access to the controversial sites, Compuserve said it would provide subscribers with software that could be employed to selectively block any material the user finds offensive.
While not foolproof, such filtering software can give people a large measure of control over what material they or their children can receive through their computer modems.
Compuserve said, however, that it was maintaining a ban on five of the computer sites suspected by German, U.S. and other law enforcement officials of carrying child pornography.
Although Compuserve described its action as a pragmatic solution to its problems in Germany and said it had no political overtones back home, the announcement comes as a number of governments -- including the United States -- have moved to restrict the availability of sexually explicit or other types of potentially offensive material over computer networks.
Last week, President Clinton signed a bill into law making it a crime to make indecent material available to children over computer networks. The new federal law, the Communications Decency Act, has already been challenged by civil liberties groups who argue that it is an overly broad and unconstitutional infringement of free speech.
Compuserve will adopt software similar to parental-control technology already offered by two other leading on-line companies, America Online and Prodigy Services.
Opponents of the Communications Decency Act assert that such technology, offered without charge, is a better way to protect the young and the sensitive, because it lets individual choice -- not government strictures -- determine the content of information flowing into and out of personal computers.
The Justice Department has agreed not to prosecute anyone under the new law at least until Thursday, when a federal judge in Philadelphia is expected to rule on whether to grant a temporary restraining order requested by the American Civil Liberties Union and other parties to the suit.
Another major legal challenge may come as soon as next week. A coalition of commercial on-line services, telecommunications companies, librarians, and civil liberties groups is considering filing its own federal suit, seeking less restrictive means to protect minors than the broad ban called for in the new law. Compuserve has been asked to join that group.
"The introduction of parental controls lets us put the power to control and restrict content access where it belongs, with the individual user," said Robert J. Massey, the president and chief executive of Compuserve, which is based in Columbus, Ohio.
Bill Burrington, assistant general counsel for America Online, the world's largest consumer on-line service, said, "Is it going to be individual choice, or the government mandating what people can see?"
The computer sites to which Compuserve had temporarily blocked access are part of Usenet, an Internet collection of more than 16,000 computer bulletin boards where messages, images, audio and video files can be posted for public consumption.
The list of some 200 Usenet sites that Compuserve had banned, under pressure from the German prosecutor, included some sexually explicit groups like alt.sex.bestiality. But the list also included bulletin boards in which victims of sexual abuse sought help and advice.
Compuserve's decision to restore access to the groups was condemned Tuesday by conservative organizations, many of which had lobbied extensively to support the Communications Decency Act.
"By this action, Compuserve is intentionally providing obscene material to its subscribers by making it available to them on their service, and they do so at their peril," said Cathleen A. Cleaver, director of legal studies at the Family Research Council, a conservative group in Washington. "We will encourage the Justice Department to prosecute Compuserve for violating the federal obscenity distribution statute."
Compuserve's action was praised by free speech and civil liberties groups. "The Compuserve decision today is the right policy for the Internet," said Jerry Berman, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington. "It provides for user control and parental control, and is consistent with the free flow of information around the world."
Compuserve had blocked access to the Usenet groups in December after a German prosecutor in Munich warned Compuserve officials that they were in possible violation of Bavarian law that made it illegal to provide children with access to pornography.
The German prosecutor, who is the equivalent of a U.S. attorney, gave Compuserve a list of Usenet groups that he said contained indecent language or images of nudity and pornography.
Because minors can gain access to the Internet through Compuserve, the prosecutor said, Compuserve was legally liable for disseminating pornography even through it did not create or maintain the objectionable material.
Other on-line information services, including America Online and Prodigy, have software controls that allow parents to block access to network services they find offensive.
But until Tuesday, Compuserve lacked selective controls. Before that, the only way Compuserve could satisfy the German prosecutor was to shut off access to the designated computer sites in all 147 countries where it does business.
All along, Compuserve officials have contended that their company should not be held accountable for Internet material over which it has no control.
"Responsibility for Internet content lies with those who create it or put it on the Internet, not with the access provider," Massey said Tuesday.
The parental-control software that Compuserve licensed is a version of Cyber Patrol, made by Microsystems Software Inc., a privately held company based in Framingham, Mass. Nigel Spicer, president of Microsystems, declined to discuss the financial terms of the deal.
Last month, a second German prosecutor, in Manheim, warned Compuserve and a German on-line service that they were providing access to neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic information via the Internet's World Wide Web.
Distribution of such material is illegal in Germany. A Compuserve spokesman said the company was investigating that complaint.
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company