Germany Gets Radikal About Extremists on Web

By Rebecca Vesely, Wired Ventures
22 January 1997

Germany Gets Radikal About Extremists on Web Tuesday - Are the German government's tactics for barring extremist material on the Internet realistic?

5:03 pm PST 21 Jan 97 - The German government, never shy about expressing its disdain for left- and right-wing radicals inside its borders, has taken to combing the Internet for signs of extremist activity.

But Germany's effort to stop the distribution of terrorist manuals and Nazi propaganda is like pointing a fire hose at a beehive - instead of quashing the bees, it only scatters them, and makes them more insistent.

Last week, German authorities filed charges against a member of the communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS, Angela Marquardt, for linking to the banned left-wing magazine Radikal from her homepage, causing Net activists to anticipate another incident like that last September, when several German ISPs temporarily blocked Radikal's server, XS4All. In response, the magazine was mirrored on more than 50 Web sites around the world.

"The decision to prosecute for linking to Radikal will probably bring yet another escalation of events, where this censored magazine will become all the more popular on the Net," said Felipe Rodriquez, managing director of XS4All, which is based in the Netherlands. "Censoring the Internet is usually very counterproductive, and an insurance that many people will mirror the information and start distributing it."

XS4All, which describes itself as "networking for the masses," hosts some 4,600 homepages, and was recently in the news for posting several homepages for media banned in Serbia, such as Radio B92, that continue to offer via the Web live RealAudio feeds and frequent updates on the continued nationwide protests against the Serbian government.

Banned in Germany 12 years ago, and published underground for the past decade, Radikal advocates the overthrow of the German government. German officials say the magazine's publishers provide terrorist information in their pages, including how to sabotage train lines. But the publishers argue that they have the right to publish material contrary to the German government.

"We fundamentally reject the notion that the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force," the publishers wrote in an article titled "Who We Are" in 1995. "The existing social conditions can only be changed if left-radical groups and associations build up their abilities and structures so as to be able to counter some of these effects even today. This, of course, includes militant and armed intervention, but these would be empty gestures if there wasn't also some sort of linkage or means of conveying their message."

While publishers continue to produce the magazine in print form outside of Germany, sympathizers have been posting it to a homepage on XS4All.

"As an act of solidarity with them and with Radikal we decided to put it on the Internet and, of course, to frustrate this censorship attempt of the German authorities," the sympathizers wrote in an email to Wired News. They added that while they had no contact with the publishers of Radikal, they are currently being investigated by Germany's public prosecutor general and have no plans to "go on holiday in Germany."

Although Radikal is not banned in the Netherlands, the German government says that linking to the magazine from inside Germany is "aiding a felony," spokesman Ruediger Reiff told Reuters. In December, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Cabinet approved a bill banning the electronic distribution of forms of hate speech, terrorism, and indecent material. The new German law places responsibility on the loosely defined "suppliers," and in response, CompuServe considered moving its administrative operations to a neighboring country.

PDS member Marquardt says her prosecution has less to do with Radikal, than an attempt to quiet German citizens who, like herself, are outspoken critics of the government.

"This is hardly about bomb-building instructions or highly detailed descriptions of train lines and their weaknesses," Marquardt, who could not be reached for comment, wrote in a statement posted on her Web site. "The all-too-stubborn guardians of the state will quickly learn: The Net interprets censorship as a malfunction and circumvents it."

In the meantime, XS4All has not received any official communication from the German Justice Department, nor from the Dutch Justice Department.

"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 the liberty of speech of our user," XS4All's Rodriquez said.

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