Year of the censor


COMPUSERVE has propelled itself to the forefront of the Internet censorship debate by barring its four million members from accessing sex related areas of the Net. It took the action just before Christmas under pressure from German criminal prosecutors.

Its users in 140 countries have been banned from accessing 200 areas alter the company received a "direct mandate" from German authorities. CompuServe said its technology did not allow it to block these items only from German users, but that it was investigating ways of doing this. It also said it was working with German prosecutors to resolve the matter.

Saying that it has about 500,000 subscribers in Western Europe, a CompuServe statement emphasised "It was not our idea to block these areas, we didn't make the list (of suspended services), we had no choice but to comply with this order."

"We do business in hundreds of countries," William Giles, a company spokesman said. "It's a huge global market and in order to play in each country we have to play by their rules."

Reactions to the ban were predictably divided. Civil liberties groups denounced it, while the US National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children said, "That's electronic citizenship."

CompuServe members have raised a flood of protest in its own discussion areas. One message said "You are on course to becoming the least popular provider in my area. Have you changed your name to the Archbishop of ******serve?"

A San Francisco gay rights group has begun a boycott of two German brewed beers to protest at the censorship, saying that the ban affected discussion groups on homosexuality and Aids.

Ironically, CompuServe has always regulated material available within its own file data bases and has only allowed its members to access Internet files in the past year. The 200 banned areas are reportedly all in Use net News, the Internet rolling discussion and chat areas. Only a fraction of the 10,000 plus Usenet newsgroups are affected.

Meanwhile China is set to outdo the German action. A joint statement from the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the State Council last weekend warned that pornography and "harmful materials" had entered cyberspace. "We must take effective measures to deal with this," it said, without specifying the measures.

It was only last May that commercial access to the Internet became available in China, provided by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications in association with Sprint, the US telecommunications company. The growth has been exponential. Between March and July the number of users jumped from 3,000 to 40,000, while the number of computers with access rose from 400 to 6,000.

In June, China's Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, Wu Jichuan, said the government would limit access of Chinese users "to some Internet information". He added "By linking with the Internet, we do not mean the absolute freedom of information."

Martin Crumpton (44) has become the first person in Britain to be jailed for receiving child porn through the Internet. The former computer consultant was jailed for three months after admitting six charges of possessing indecent pictures of children. He had admitted the specimen charges at a preliminary hearing in December, when his case was adjourned for pre sentence reports.