Worldwide crackdown on Internet pornography

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The Independent Online

Science Correspondent

A global crackdown on pornography on the Internet looks likely after the US-based on-line information provider, CompuServe, cut off the access of its 4 million members to more than 200 of its most sex-oriented Internet "newsgroups".

The move follows an investigation by the German prosecutor's office which suspects some "newsgroups" are used for passing child pornography. CompuServe said it cut offgroups identified "as illegal under German criminal law".

A similar restriction is likely in the US next year when the Communications Decency Act becomes law. A CompuServe spokeswoman said the company would comply with US law.

Newsgroups are message boards, organised loosely by topic, where Internet users can post comments, pictures and stories, and reply to other users' posts. There are about 19,000worldwide.

The case is the first time a country has tried to ban Internet newsgroups wholesale. Companies that offer Internet access usually avoid censoring the availability of newsgroups on the basis of content, arguing that to do so would make them responsible for the content of any newsgroup they did carry. They argue that they should instead be allowed to operate like a phone company, transmitting data without examining it.

CompuServe said that technical limitations in its computer system, which channels newsgroup postings through its world headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, meant that it had to cut every subscriber off rather than just the 220,000 in Germany. The company is now preparing a legal challenge.

Some see the prosecutor's move as a danger to the Internet's anarchic organisation. "The greatest threat is that rules will be put up and barriers will be set before we even know what this business [the Internet] is all about and what great opportunities it offers," said Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications, a US research company.

German users complained about the blocking of the newsgroups. "Do we abolish automobile traffic because of a few speeders?" asked one user.

A CompuServe spokeswoman said: "It's a situation where we are the most visible corporation in a new industry, so we're looking at a whole new scenario. This is where the whole issue is so potent, because in normal life there are very few global regulations for anything. We're in uncharted waters."

However, a representative of the German prosecutor's office said that other Internet service providers had already removed the groups. "They have closed their lines off from pornography," said a spokesman. He added that 200 sources of pornography on the Internet are being examined.

The German prosecutor's investigation follows a law passed in 1994 which made it illegal to possess pornography involving children. The office is also studying "revisionist" claims about Nazi death camps on the Internet. In Germany it is an offence to deny the fact of the Holocaust.

The problem for police forces is that the Internet has no central control and the volume of information traffic is equal to thousands of books a day.