(C) The New York Times

For an ISP in the Netherlands, Controversy Is an Old Friend

By Bruno Giussani, in The New York Times/Cybertimes
29 April 1997

For an ISP in the Netherlands, Controversy Is an Old Friend

AMSTERDAM -- April has meant business as usual at XS4ALL (access-for-all), the third-largest Internet service provider in the Netherlands.

The month started off with the XS4ALL Web site being out of reach for a substantial portion of the European online population, and it is ending with the provider's adding a notch to its track record as a champion of freedom of speech.

On April 11 the Dutch Web site was blocked by the German academic network, Deutsche Forschungsnetz (DFN), which serves about 400 universities and research organizations and provides Internet access to a half million people. DFN acted under pressure from the Federal Criminal Investigation Bureau pointing out the illegal -- in Germany, though not in the Netherlands -- content of Radikal Magazine, which is housed on the XS4ALL server.

Radikal, a left-wing underground magazine, advocates "militant and armed interventions" to overthrow the government, and has published a "Short guide to hindering railway transports of all kinds" -- a handbook describing how to attack and damage tracks.

Since selectively barring single home pages is technically impossible, the DNF action cut off all 6,000 pages on the XS4ALL servers, including those of Serbian opposition radio station B-92 and several scientific databases.

Thus, while blocking illegal material, the German network was also hampering scientific work -- which DFN has been established to nurture. Not to mention that skilled Internet users could route around the obstacle by using a remailing system or a proxy server located abroad. What's more, Radikal Magazine can be found on several dozen "mirror sites" around the world.

Ten days later -- after being flooded by protests -- the German network lifted the ban on XS4ALL. "An effective blockage of illegal information has not been within the realms of possibility," Klaus-Eckart Maass, a DFN spokesman, conceded in an interview with The Associated Press.

Now, this happened the very same week as the indictment of a German manager of CompuServe, a leading international online service, for the transmission of allegedly illegal materials over the Internet and as the German Parliament opened discussions on a new multimedia law.

The new bill would place the responsibility for content on the supplier of the data, thus Internet service providers would not be held liable for illegal information that could pass over their wires unless they have been alerted and "have the technical ability" to delete or block it -- the very same scheme the German academic network found impossible to enforce.

It was not the first time XS4ALL had been at the forefront of an Internet skirmish.

Last September, most German ISPs blocked XS4ALL for a month after complaints by a regional prosecutor about Radikal. (In January Angela Marquardt, a Bavarian socialist politician, was indicted for linking to the banned magazine from her personal home page).

"After a couple of weeks, the censored information was mirrored on some 50 Web sites around the world and voluntarily removed by our user from the XS4ALL server," the company's founder, Felipe Rodriquez, 28, explained. "After the block had ended, our user put the documents back on his page."

Along with German prosecutors, the Amsterdam-based provider has lined up a fair list of other adversaries: the McDonald's fast-food chain, the Serbian government and the Church of Scientology, just to name a few.

XS4ALL's roots reach into the hacker movement. The venture started out in 1993 "to give anyone the possibility to access the Internet." At that time there were no commercial access providers in Holland. It has grown into a respectable and very successful business in less than four years, yet the principles on which it was created have not changed: "Internet for the masses" is still its motto. XS4ALL currently has 55 employees, boasts 21,000 subscribers and hosts some 6,000 home pages.

"A few years ago, we would have been portrayed as a band of dangerous anarchists, bent on disrupting society," Rodriquez told the Dutch daily Trouw. "But now they have come to see that we are nice and quiet people really."

The company was instrumental in the creation of the Amsterdam Digital City project, a community networking initiative backed by taxpayer's money, and Rodriquez himself played a key role in setting up the Dutch anti-child-pornography hotline, the first of its kind, last year.

"Before we started the hotline, Holland had a reputation of being a kid-porn freehaven," he said in an interview last week. "We designed it as a non-censoring form of self-regulation."

The hotline is run by Internet users and providers. Unlike Britain's Internet Watch Foundation, the Dutch hotline doesn't censor any information nor does it ask the provider to do so. Hotline operators contact the author of the information and ask him to remove the offending content. "If the author does not comply, we report him to the police, and he'll be prosecuted," said Rodriquez, who also is chairman of the Dutch Providers Association.

"The Internet Watch Foundation forces the provider to remove the illegal content," he added. "This is a fundamentally different approach to responsibilities on the Internet. We think the author of the information is responsible for his own actions, not the provider."

That's why XS4ALL didn't take any steps against the customer who posted Radikal Magazine on its server. "Our policy is that as a provider we are not in the position to judge whether this magazine is illegal in the Netherlands, therefore we do not interfere with our users' freedom of speech," Rodriquez stated.

"If there is any doubt about the legality of the publication in Holland, a Dutch court of law would be the proper place to remove these doubts," he added.

This was the case when, in September 1995, the Religious Technology Center -- better known as the Church of Scientology -- filed for the seizure of all the XS4ALL computer equipment "because one of our users had put on his home page some information to which Scientology said it owned the copyright."

The document -- the now famous "Fishman affidavit" -- is the actual transcript of a testimony given by Steven Fishman in a Los Angeles Court in which he accused the church of having forced him to act illegally.

"We denied any responsibility for the content on our users' pages; they decide for themselves what they will publish," Rodriquez recalled. "We won the litigation." The user preferred to take down the controversial document.

Yet when violation of the law is flagrant, XS4ALL doesn't hesitate to comply, as it did a few weeks ago when it shut down a customer's home page called Neuroroom, which sold marijuana and other soft drugs in Holland and abroad.

The company's commitment to support free expression and democratization of the Internet doesn't stop here. Last fall when the Serbian government censored radio station B-92, XS4ALL helped design an Internet campaign and started to carry news broadcasts (in RealAudio format) that kept the rare opposition voice alive and the international public informed through independent accounts of the events occurring during the mass demonstrations in Belgrade.

"They gave us disk space, donated network traffic and helped in training people," said Frank Tiggelaar, a Dutch activist for democratization in former Yugoslavia.

"Basically any project we like gets free resources from XS4ALL," Rodriquez commented.

The campaign of Helen Steel and Dave Morris is among the projects XS4ALL's old hackers do like. The two British environmentalists are the main characters of a civil case that started in 1990 when the McDonald's restaurant chain sued them for distributing flyers pointing at what they called the company's economic and ecological "ravages."

The trial is not over yet -- but it has spawned a large Internet-based support network and fed a huge anti-McDonald's Web site called McSpotlight hosted, not surprisingly, by XS4ALL.

EUROBYTES is published weekly, on Tuesdays.

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(Bruno Giussani at eurobytes@nytimes.com welcomes your comments and suggestions.)