The Internet is the wild frontier where anything goes, right?
Not if you live in Bavaria it doesn't, since faced with the task of regulating the
Internet, the authorities in Bavaria decided to take the soft option and prosecute the
highest profile Internet service provider employee they could find and make an example of
him or her. And so they did.
Felix Somm, general manager for CompuServe in Germany until he resigned last
April after being indicted, was handed a two-year suspended sentence from the Munich
district court for 13 counts of distributing online pornography and other illegal material
- even though he had no direct role in disseminating it on the Internet.
This is, as you may realise, the same as banging up the head of the post office if
someone slips a sachet of cocaine in the mail or sends a letter bomb - both of which are
technically more easily detectable than a pornographic image in 8Gbyte of data; and
possibly the same as indicting HM the Queen, whose face and general endorsements can be
found on the more negotiable proceeds of various crimes - ranging from prostitution to
I hope that Compuserve has the good sense to bring a private prosecution against the
head of the Bavarian ministry of transport for allowing cars that commit crimes on
The question of the liability of internet service providers as "common
carriers" of information that is outside their control has been debated long and hard
ever since the first rude image appeared in a newsgroup. On the one side, the industry and
all those who really know about these things say that there is absolutely no way to
control the flow of information - of all types - short of unplugging everything and
everyone. On the other side, the upholders of the law and decency pull the peaked caps
down over their eyes and say "ban it". But if the material in question is
illegal on paper, then in virtually every land on the internet, it's also illegal on line,
with clear distinctions between publishers and carriers.
One interesting point about the internet that usually gets overlooked is that the trail
left by those who abuse it, is already rather more easily traced than most people believe,
and it wouldn't take a great deal more effort than is already planned to provide the
cocoon of security around net commerce to make it even more difficult for the abusers.
Although there is an issue of libertarian freedom involved, the main issue here is
wasting time in pursuit of the wrong agendas. Just as Al Capone and the other prohibition
mobsters in the USA hailed the onset of abolition of alcohol, the Bavarian porn merchants
probably heaved a great sigh of relief that the value of their merchandise is once again
However, further examination of the particular German case reveals that beak in the
case, one Judge Wilhelm Hubbert appears to have taken the law a step further than it
actually states, since the so-called German Multimedia Law says that ISPs and online
services won't be held liable for pornography or hate speech posted by third parties
unless "they have knowledge of such content and blocking its use is both technically
possible and can be reasonably expected."
So far from being the harbinger of a crackdown on the Internet, this looks like a
"hang 'em" judge whose judgement is almost certain to be overturned on appeal,
carrying out a one-judge crusade, and helping to underline the futility of content control
However, Judge Willy and his colleagues would be advised to take into account that his
predecessors back in the thirties got into the habit of ordering the burning of books that
didn't always tell the story according to the wishes of the establishment at that time.
And just see where that got them.
The technology may have changed, but the message is always going to outlast the medium,
regardless of how enlightening or degrading it might be, and how much the establishment
would prefer that it did not exist. We don't have to like it all the time but we do now
have to learn to live with it.
On the subject of freedom of expression, a respected UK professional IT publication
recently ran a story on the front page describing how a web site had been hacked. The
publication failed to mention that the victim of the hacking had contacted them and asked
that they did not report the story, since the hacker had attempted to extort money in
return for telling how he done it - or he would contact the aforementioned publication.
The message promoted by the magazine is thus - refuse to pay hackers their ransom and a
magazine will carry out the hackers threat of exposure.
Where's Judge Wilhem Hubbert when you need him..?