Ex-CompuServe manager: Porn verdict won't stand

The ex-manager of CompuServe Deutschland GmbH, who was recently found guilty of disseminating child pornography over the Internet [see the July 1998 issue of PC World], has said Internet services providers should act responsibly if they are aware of what passes through their servers.

"Child pornography is illegal around the world. (Pornographic content) is almost impossible to filter, but if ISPs obtain information from trusted sources then ISPs should act," Felix Somm told the IDG News Service in an interview at the SPA Europe Ninth Annual Conference. ISPs shouldn't have to take on the role of a police service, but they can stop access to offending material if they have the right information, Somm said.

Two weeks ago a Bavarian district court found Somm guilty of complicity in 13 cases of spreading pornography over the Internet, and gave him a two-year suspended sentence.

Somm was accused of allowing CompuServe customers in Germany to access pornography, including child pornography, in 1995 and 1996, before CompuServe blocked access to controversial news groups.

Somm said he was "shocked" by the ruling and immediately appealed the decision.

"I was quite shocked. There was no sign that the judge would make such a decision," he said. "The judge had a prewritten opinion and didn't listen to the expert opinion. The decision was very unexpected, especially considering the fact that the prosecutors, toward the end, backed off," Somm said.

Somm repeated other observers' belief that the ruling judge was conservative and had limited knowledge about the Internet. "He (the judge) tried to do something against child pornography but unfortunately got it wrong," Somm said.

The Swiss national is now in the throes of a German appeal process, but remains optimistic about the final outcome. "People should not panic. The final decision is what counts," Somm said, adding that he is buoyed by the support from the Internet community, the general public and politicians.

Somm's conviction has unsettled many in the Internet community who have voiced outrage against the decision. Not only is the industry behind Somm, but even the prosecutors who initially won the case are supporting him. A week after the ruling, prosecutors also decided to appeal the decision.

According to Somm, he is currently coordinating with the prosecutors to overturn the decision, so that there won't be any conflicting information.

Also, Germany's 1997 multimedia law makes the Somm decision moot, because it exonerates service providers from responsibility for foreign material to which they only provide access. The law distinguishes three types of Internet providers: pure access providers, service providers and content providers, according to Somm.

"CompuServe at that time was considered a pure access provider and not liable for content," he said.

Because companies cannot be sued for criminal acts in Germany, Somm, who was head of CompuServe's operations there, bore the brunt of the suit. But he feels no grudge against the company he left on good terms last year to start up a electronic commerce consulting business in Switzerland called Somm & Partner AG.

CompuServe, now owned by America Online, is helping Somm with the criminal suit, by paying for all his legal costs and preparatory work, he said.

Having been in a legal battle since 1996, Somm advised other Internet access providers to look at the legal fineprint carefully, as well as self-regulation. Many weeks of preparing the appeals case lies ahead, according to Somm. He is not certain whether the appeals case will go before the Bavarian regional courts or its supreme court, but looks forward to a getting different judge.

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