April 23, 1997

Chancellor Helmut Kohl
Adenauerallee 141
53113 Bonn

Dear Chancellor Kohl,

The undersigned organizations, members of the Global Internet Liberty Campaign, are writing to express concern about the prosecution of Felix Somm, German representative of CompuServe, for the transmission of allegedly illegal materials over the Internet. The news reports we have received indicate that Mr. Somm is being prosecuted because Internet users are able to obtain information on the Internet, by means of the CompuServe service, that may be considered illegal in Germany.

We believe that the prosecution of the CompuServe manager is ill-advised for both technical and regulatory reasons. We also believe that this prosecution violates international norms for the protection of speech and will have a harmful impact on Internet users around the world.

There are two technical factors that prevent an service provider, such as CompuServe, from blocking the free flow of information on the Internet. First, an Internet service provider cannot easily stop the incoming flow of material. No one can monitor the enormous quantity of network traffic, which may consist of hundreds of thousands of emails, newsgroup messages, files, and Web pages that pass through in dozens of text and binary formats, some of them readable only by particular proprietary tools. As the European Commission noted recently, "it is as yet unclear how far it is technically possible to block access to content once it is identified as illegal. This is a problem which also affects the degree of liability of the access providers."

A second technical problem is that a provider cannot selectively disable transmission to particular users. Electronic networks typically do not allow for the identification of particular users or their national region. Thus, we support CompuServe's claim that it cannot provide material in one country while blocking it in another; such a distinction would require an enormous new infrastructure on top of the current network.

Some networking technologies, such as newsgroups, may allow individual operators to select some groups or items and block others. But many technologies, such as the widely used World Wide Web, currently do not support such selectivity.

We also oppose the prosecution of CompuServe because of the harmful impact it will have on the development of new communication services around the globe. The great appeal of the Internet is its openness. Efforts to restrict the free flow of information on the Internet, like efforts to restrict what may be said on a telephone, would place unreasonable burdens on well established principles of privacy and free speech.

We believe that the charges against CompuServe will establish a harmful precedent, and may encourage other governments to censor speech, limit political debate, control artistic expression, and otherwise deny the opportunity for individuals to be fully informed. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, states:

ARTICLE 19. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

At the same, we are very much encouraged by the recent developments in the German parliament concerning new approaches to the regulation of Internet services. In particular, we believe that the measure now under consideration to reduce liability for Internet services will do much to ensure the protection of personal freedoms in the future.

On behalf of the undersigned organizations and many Internet users around the world, we ask you to investigate the matter of Mr. Somm and to lend your support to policies that would promote the development of this new communications technology in a manner consistent with the aims and aspirations of democratic countries.

cc: Dr. Edzard Schmidt-Jortzig.
Federal Minister of Justice

Respectfully yours,

(Listing of organizations)

ALCEI - Electronic Frontiers Italy []

American Civil Liberties Union []

Arge Daten []

Association des Utilisateurs d'Internet []

Bevcom Internet Technologies []

C.I.T.A.D.E.L. Electronic Frontier France []

Committee to Protect Journalists []

Computer Professional for Social Responsibility []

Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties (UK) []

Derechos Human Rights []

Electronic Frontiers Australia []

Electronic Frontier Canada []

Electronic Frontier Foundation []

EFF-Austin []

Electronic Privacy Information Center []

Förderverein Informationstechnik und Gesellschaft (FITUG) []

Fronteras Electronicas Espaņa (FrEE) []

Human Rights Watch []

Internet Society []

NetAction []

Open Society Institute []

Peacefire []

Privacy International []