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Internet: German Laws Protect And Pressure Freedom On Web

  • Roland Eggleston

No country feels the dual pressures of protecting freedom of speech and enforcing rules against hate speech more than Germany. German officials say their laws clearly forbid selling offensive material, such as Nazi memorabilia, over the Internet, but they say pressures are increasing to restrict Internet pages that promote offensive ideas. They say many of these pages originate in the United States, where they are protected by the Constitution. In this second of two features on the Internet and free speech, RFE/RL's Munich correspondent Roland Eggleston examines the issue in Germany.

Munich, 8 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- German officials say they do not have problems with Internet companies selling Nazi memorabilia or other offensive materials over the worldwide computer network. That's because, the officials explain, the companies know they would be prosecuted immediately if they tried.

The officials say that German laws are simply too strong and unequivocal in preventing the sale of such items, whether the sales are conducted in the country itself or over the Internet.

The German Interior Ministry tells our correspondent that any Internet company trying to sell Nazi memorabilia or items that promote hatred is subject to prosecution.

A search of some leading Internet auction sites in Germany reveals that no Nazi-era items are for sale, even though similar searches from other countries reveal pages of Nazi items for auction.

In France last year, the U.S.-based Internet company Yahoo was taken to court for offering Nazi memorabilia over its website. The rights group which brought the suit contended the sale of such items over the company's website, which is accessible in France, violated local laws which prohibit the sale of items that promote hatred.

Yahoo withdrew the offensive items but vowed to fight the French ban as contradicting U.S. constitutional safeguards on free speech. It has made no such statement in Germany, however, where its website is also easily accessible.

In Germany, the dissemination of neo-Nazi or racist propaganda is forbidden under Paragraph 86 of the criminal code. This covers hero-worship of Hitler and other Nazi leaders, propaganda against foreigners and Jews, and incitement to violence. Violations of the law can bring up to three years imprisonment.

The law applies not only to the dissemination of propaganda in the media. It also forbids the use, or sale, of Nazi memorabilia such as Swastika badges, Nazi flags or uniforms. It bans the use of Nazi salutes or words of greeting -- such as "Heil Hitler."

The law is strictly enforced. German auction houses have been prosecuted for selling Nazi memorabilia.

The same law applies to material on the Internet, which is closely monitored by Germany's internal security agency. The authorities claim a good record in stopping locally produced far-right propaganda. Among those prosecuted was an army sergeant who in August last year registered an Internet address with the name www.heil-hitler.

In another case, German right-wingers tried to register a website called "kill-all-foreigners." A woman student was prosecuted for operating an Internet site which offered tips on making bombs.

But the internal security organization has not done so well in preventing the dissemination of German-language material originating in other countries, often in the United States.

Most far-right German political parties are represented on the Internet. The National Democratic Party -- which the government wants to ban -- has had a website since 1996. Other far-right parties and groups are also represented. But the internal security agency says most of their material is tame compared with that originating in the United States because the fear of prosecution is greater.

The agency -- the Office for the Protection of the Constitution -- says nearly 90 percent of German-language right-wing web pages originate in the United States. A senior official, Wolfgang Cremer, says the anti-Semitic, anti-foreigner material is very offensive, but U.S. safeguards on free speech, even hate speech, make it difficult for the Germans to stop them.

A spokeswoman for the agency, Sonja Schmidt, says an important element in negotiations with countries aimed at offending web pages is the right to freedom of expression embodied in the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. She says it is referred to frequently in negotiations with the United States.

"We have extensive contacts with the American authorities, but there are limits to what can be done in the U.S. Americans do not want to curtail the right to freedom of speech. Even American Jewish organizations do not want laws restricting the right to free speech, even though they themselves oppose right-wing extremism."

The German authorities have had some successes in pressing for international action. Last year, a number of offensive websites which used a Swiss provider were closed down under German pressure.

The most notable recent success came in December, when the German Supreme Court ruled German laws against spreading Nazi propaganda apply also to the Internet -- even if the content originates in another country and is placed there by a non-German.

In this case, the offender was German-born Frederick Toben, who had taken Australian citizenship. His home is in Australia and so is his Internet server. Despite this, the German court convicted him of using the Internet to disseminate German-language propaganda that denied the Nazis killed millions of Jews.

But Cremer says it was only half a victory. Toben was convicted of insulting the memory of the dead -- not of the more serious charge of incitement to racial hatred. Nor is it sure that he will ever pay a fine or otherwise be punished.

But even in Germany, where laws against Nazi propaganda are rooted in recent history, the debate over Internet censorship is intense. Free speech is considered a basic right.

Many Germans argue that in a democratic country any form of censorship, even over the Internet, raises obvious problems: Who or what decides which restrictions are placed on speech? And if neo-Nazi propaganda is banned, then what about propaganda from other offensive organizations?

For now, opinion polls indicate that Germans support restrictions on the Internet, particularly now that children have easy access to the computer.

Sonja Schmidt says the Internet holds a unique fascination for young people, and for this reason it needs to be given special treatment.

"We are concerned about increasing use of the Internet by right-wing extremist organizations, particularly because of the fascination the Internet holds for young people. They would have little interest in a pamphlet, but it is more interesting when it appears on the Internet. Many young people today have access to the Internet without being under the control of either their parents or teachers."

This is also worrying to the internal security agency. It is concerned that neo-Nazi and right-wing organizations are trying to reach out to children to infect them with their ideology. The agency believes the only way to rescue the situation is international cooperation to ensure that such material is banned in all democratic countries.

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