BISSEX: Link Crime

Last Friday, 25-year-old Angela Marquardt, a German activist and university student, went on trial in Berlin. The official charge is aiding and abetting the publication of banned political material, but it would be better termed "link crime." You see, the tool Marquardt used for the alleged deed was her page on the World Wide Web -- and the charges aren't about what her page says, but what it links to. On the Web, any page can be made to link (point) to any other merely by adding the destination page's address and the proper codes. Such a link is hardly different, in terms of the information it provides, from a slip of paper bearing the same address -- except that a single slip of paper doesn't have much reach. Unlike a slip of paper, Marquardt's Web page -- and her criminal link to the page of an outlawed publication called Radikal -- can be viewed by any Net user in the world. This includes Germany, of course, and that has German police upset.Based on a magazine banned by the German government over ten years ago, the Radikal Web page is stored on a computer located in the Netherlands, where its contents are not illegal. Therefore German police are powerless to remove it directly. Instead, they are trying to eliminate all references to it from within Germany.This is a tall order. Last September, several German Internet Service Providers (ISPs) attempted to block the Radikal site in order to keep their customers from accessing it. In response, free speech advocates around the globe "mirrored" the site, creating scores of identical copies. Since the filtering method used by the ISPs only blocked the original, this ruined the attempt at censorship.Marquardt is not the first target of such prosecution by any means. German prosecutors have been after the online service CompuServe since 1995 for alleged violations of Germany's decency laws. This may ultimately drive CompuServe from Germany, but it won't drive the offensive material from the Net.No matter how hard German police try to put an electronic wall around their country, new holes keep appearing. Using a popular German search site called "Aladin" (www.aladin.de) I turned up dozens of references to Marquardt and Radikal, and quickly found a news story containing the verboten link. The Germans say that the Radikal site should be banned because it contains instructions on sabotaging trains. Conveniently for the prosecution, few people are willing to come out and say "I have a right to learn about sabotaging trains!" But believing in free speech doesn't mean you have to love the contents of Radikal. You just have to believe that saying such things (or creating a link to them on a Web page) shouldn't send you to prison.As of this writing, Marquardt's trial has been delayed until the end of June. The judge hearing the case has decided that expert testimony on the nature of the Net must be heard if the court is to make an informed decision. The prosecution is still confident that the link constitutes aiding and abetting. Marquardt believes the Net should be a free speech zone. If I had to bet, I'd say that the German government will lose this case. But losing the battle does not mean losing the war. Right now the fact that the Net knows no political boundaries offers a sense of invincibility for free speech advocates. But the law moves slowly and is just beginning to encroach; in coming years we may start to see reciprocity agreements between countries, Germany and China for example, who want to control what their citizens can see on the Net. An Internet Iron Curtain? It's conceivable. Let's hope for a free-speech precedent in Berlin. ***Sites in my SightsTo see what has gotten the German government so bent, you can visit an English-language mirror of the Radikal site (www.meaning.com/library/radikal/en/). A humorous bonus is that this version is the product of computer translation, resulting in surreal slogans like "Still the property of a Radikal is completely harmless and not taut-devoid of!!" As of this writing the original is still online as well (www.xs4all.nl/~radikal/).Don't Just Sit There, Sit There and Do SomethingEarly on in this year's censorship efforts, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl got an earful from the Global Internet Liberty Campaign, which wrote to Kohl on behalf of concerned groups from a dozen countries. Check out their site (www.gilc.org); so many organizations have signed on to the Campaign that you may be involved without knowing it!Will there ever be a first amendment in cyberspace? Send a letter in care of this publication, drop a line via e-mail (pb@well.com), or visit the Cyberia website (www.well.com/user/pb/cyb).©1997 by Paul Bissex

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