The Compuserve Switch-Off of USENET NewsGroups (Michael Kunze)


Subject--CIS censorship--The whole story

Date--Sat, 06 Jan 1996 09:33:39 GMT

Dear Nettizens

Some few five hundred postings ago, I promised you let you have more details about the CompuServe censorship case investigated by the editorial staff of SPIEGEL online. It is not a story of evil but of people acting overambitious and ignorant. And it is not quite as simple as DrG might be wishing! To keep it short, here are the facts: In 1994, a Task Force called "AG EDV" was set up by the Bavarian Minister of Interior at the Police Headquarters in Munich. Initially, the Task Force was formed to search persons dealing with pornographic material via BTX the former online service of German Telekom and its work was limited to one year.

For the moment, investigations of this Task Force ran successfully due to the assistance of Telekom. But simultaneously, people being suspected changed their ways of distributing either to closed BBS systems or chose more secret methods. So the Task Force was compelled to enhance their efforts and they raided Munich BBS systems. Furthermore, they studied computer magazines to find ads for pornographic CD-ROMs. During this operation they found what they were looking for, and "PC Direkt", a Ziff Davis publication, and some other magazine were forced to pulp some issues.

All activities of the Task Force could not have happened, if they were not supported by a whole bunch of local prosecutors and judges. Sticking together, chatting, doing favours forms a part of the social life in Munich - in malicious words - the 'Munich swamp'.

The prevailing opinion of the Task Force and of some prosecutors is that carriers of digital information could held responsible for the content of what they are spreading. This meaning matches exactly the content of the CDA. But this is only one point of view. Up to now, there doesn't exist any law or direction in Germany concerning responsibilities of ISPs or online services regarding contents they only do deliver. And so, judges decide from case to case. The German department of justice thinks that carriers could be held responsible if they deliver illegal content "deliberately". But then, could one call them "carriers"?

Last summer, a kind of hysteria about Internet pornography broke out in German media. A few journalist had made their first steps in the Internet and discovered nasty postings in the Usenet hierarchy. A student of Erlangen University was seized because of spreading child porn via Usenet. Then, the "Time" article about Internet porn was published and quoted by nearly every German newspaper.

I think at that time the Task Force planned to investigate the Usenet. Due to the facts that CIS had become a big ISP and their German office is located in Munich, CIS seemed to be a worthwhile target. Somehow the Task Force managed to get a search warrant to investigate the Munich CIS office on November, 22nd. However, the search was more or less like a visit. Let me quote the public prosecutor: CompuServe "was quite cooperative". "We sat together talking about chances to kick pornographic contents out of CompuServe's information system." The police officers just collected a copy of the CompuServe association contract and the address of the CEO.

Two days later, CompuServe's German managers published that they "will do anything to support the work of German authorities fighting against pornography in Cyberspace". On December, 8th, CIS was handled a list of more than 200 newsgroups by the Task Force. In my opinion, interpreting the prosecutor and the CIS spokeswoman, this list was presented to CIS as containing "suspicious newsgroups". In the attached letter from the prosecutor it is said: "... it is left to CompuServe to take the necessary steps to avoid possible liabilities to punishment."

So, if CompuServe should have ever had threats, it could have been only very small ones. But there is no reason to their German management to risk anything. CompuServe's approach is not to guarantee for "freedom of speech and information" but to make "money".

When i interviewed the prosecutor, it soon became quite clear that his department had tried to bring CIS to court to get its legal position checked by some judges. Because of CIS servile tactics they had to give up their goal.

The ominous list itself shows, how ignorant the members of the Task Force are about the Usenet. In my opinion, they just sampled all newsgroups containing words like "sex", "erotic", "gay" and so on and put the result onto the list.

We have two in depth articles on the whole affair on our web server. One is an extended version of what i've posted here, the other deals with the CDA and the actual political and legal situation concerning the Internet. Unfortunately for US readers, these articles are in German because we didn't found the time to translate them. But i hope will can manage this until Monday 8th, 8:00 AM, EST. Then, you should point your browser to:

or have a look at our complete online services at

By the way, SPIEGEL online is the online department of the reputable German news magazin DER SPIEGEL.

Greetings Michael --------------------------------------------------------- Michael Kunze Tel.:+49(0)40-3007-0 Redaktion/editorial staff Fax :+49(0)40-3007-2986 Spiegel Online Brandstwiete 19 20457 Hamburg / Germany +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

std. disclaimer: diese Meinung meins, exclusiv und immerdar


Further Sources
Compuserve's own media release

of 28 December 1995

An AP article of 4 January 1996 carried the following:

Columbus, Ohio (AP) -- The on-line service CompuServe says it hopes to reopen access to 200 sexually oriented Internet forums to all but its German customers by the end of the month...

CompuServe spokesman Jeff Shafer said Wednesday the Columbus-based company is working on a software fix that will prevent Germans from accessing the newsgroups while allowing access to customers in the rest of the world...

Munich's senior public prosecutor, Manfred Wick, said this week his office did not order a ban or provide CompuServe with any list as part of its investigation of child pornography. But he acknowledged that police asked CompuServe to scrutinize a list last month. `The decision on whether and to what extent the groups on the list would be blocked was left to CompuServe,'' Wick's statement said.


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Last Amended: 21 January 1996

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