French minister says Internet SPs not responsible for content

Francois Fillon, French Minister for Post, Telecommunications and Space, has declared that Internet service providers (ISPs) are not wholly responsible for the information they carry, according to a ministry spokeswoman.

Fillon made the announcement after the arrest last week of the directors of two French ISPs, France Net and World Net, for distributing via the Internet images of child pornography that originated in newsgroups.

The two directors were held in custody for 30 hours, during which time they explained to the police what the Internet is and how it works, according to Sebastian Socchard, director of WorldNet.

"We don't store the pages, we provide a faster means of access for users ... we try to filter, but we can't filter everything," he says.

Any sort of weeding out of material, however, puts the ISP in a vulnerable position, according to Simon Reader, manager of Market Analysis at CIT Research in the UK.

"The ISP has to take his hands off and say 'I'm not going to monitor it at all' ... if they are able to monitor it, they should be able to censor it," Reader says.

The sheer volume of information that comes through from newsgroups means that ISPs have to manage their systems, according to Reader. This puts ISPs in a difficlt position as "they need to become like a postal service that does not open any mail."

"At the end of the day ISPs cannot be held responsible, but managed service providers [MSPs] such as CompuServe can be," Reader says. Legislation, he believes, will split, resulting in ISPs being viewed as telecom operators that just carry material and MSPs being seen as akin to publishers.

In Europe laws regarding the Internet are not clearly defined, with the UK and France still feeling their way towards legislation. A Europe-wide ruling cannot be expected before 1998, Reader believes, when Europe's telecom markets are due to be liberalised.

As for why Socchard and Raffi Haladjian, director of FranceNet, were arrested: "It's because we're the two biggest providers. Together we provide services to 50% of French users," claims Socchard. The affair is not closed, Socchard says, saying he and Haladjian will have a final response in a few months.

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