The former head of CompuServe's German operations went on trial yesterday for distributing child pornography over the Internet while his supporters labelled the Bavarian court trying him as "naive".
Felix Somm, formerly managing director of CompuServe Germany, was charged last year with allowing child pornography and other illegal images to be distributed over the online service he controlled during 1995 - 1996. Somm was charged after the much publicised raid on CompuServe's Munich offices in 1995.
Somm's lawyers argue that ISPs should not be liable for prosecution if illegal content is present on their servers and want online services to be treated in the same way telephone companies are: a telephone company cannot be held liable for conversations or data travelling over its wires.
The trial is being watched carefully in the UK and across Europe: if Somm is found guilty not only does he face a jail term of up to five years but other bosses in the industry question whether they are to become scapegoats for something, they argue, cannot be controlled.
"It's a very silly situation, he is being prosecuted by laws that have since been changed," according to Kieth Mitchell, chairman of the London Internet Exchange (Linx). He added: "Part of the problem is they have federal and state laws in Germany, similar to the US but the fact is he should never have been prosecuted in the first place. I'm sure European ISPs will be watching the case very closely."
A spokesman for Bertelsman AG which owns CompuServe, told ZDNet News: "There is a very low chance of this ever happening again in Germany. We have a law here - the multimedia law - which makes it impossible for an ISP to be tried like this. But in Bavaria they do things differently." Asked why the case reached the courts the spokesman said: "It wouldn't happen elsewhere in Germany. I believe it is very naive of the Bavarians to bring this case to court. They obviously don't understand that it is impossible to scan all the content on the Internet."
Asked what outcome he expected the spokesman said: "Well we think the Bavarians got the wrong guy. They should go after the perpetrators of the pornography. We fully expect Somm to be exhonerated."
The Bavarian courts did not return calls from ZDNet News.
The case is expected to last at least three months.