BERLIN — Germany's biggest Internet provider cut access Friday to neo-Nazi propaganda posted on a Northern California electronic server--and to nearly 1,500 other sites there ranging from financial services to Santa Claus Online.
Computer users accused Deutsche Telekom, the national phone company, of overreacting and said such action could stifle the free flow of information that the Internet is meant to foster.
The block was imposed Thursday.
A day earlier, prosecutors in Mannheim, Germany, said they were considering filing incitement charges against two German Internet providers, alleging that they aided in the distribution of such tracts as "The Holocaust: Let's Hear Both Sides" and "Did 6 Million Really Die?"
Neo-Nazi material is illegal to print or distribute in Germany. Violators can be charged with inciting racial hatred. It is unclear yet how such laws can be enforced in cyberspace.
Telekom's T-Online service blocked all sites on the computer run by Web Communications, based in Santa Cruz, as a preventive measure. Telekom was waiting to hear from the prosecutor, company spokesman Stefan Althoff said.
The propaganda investigation comes a month after prosecutors in Munich, investigating online pornography, announced they had identified 200 sex-related Internet discussion forums, called newsgroups, as being illegal under German law.
T-Online never carried those newsgroups. But Germany's other major Internet provider, U.S.-based CompuServe Inc., reacted by cutting access to the groups for its 4 million subscribers worldwide, touching off a debate about censorship in cyberspace.
Although newsgroups are all text, the neo-Nazi material under investigation is readily available on an area of the Internet called the World Wide Web. With the Web, computer users can click their screen pointers and "jump" from area to area to access text, pictures and even sounds.
Anyone can create a site on the Web--using a server, a computer that takes images and text and places the files on the Internet--where other personal computer users with modems can view them. Many servers, such as the Web Communications computer stifled in Germany, are run by commercial firms that charge fees.
Although newsgroups can be blocked individually by an Internet provider, Web sites cannot. So to cut off the neo-Nazi site, Deutsche Telekom was forced to block everything else on Web Communications' server.
Web Communications is a major server, with 1,491 World Wide Web sites running the gamut from real estate listings to Santa Claus Online to Deutsche Bank Securities Corp. A call there for comment was referred to company President Chris Shefler, who was not immediately available.
CompuServe, which also is under investigation by the Mannheim prosecutors, has not blocked the server. "We haven't been asked to take any action, and we haven't taken any action," spokesman William Giles said at the company's headquarters in Columbus, Ohio.
The Mannheim prosecutors' investigation is concentrating on Ernst Zuendel, a German neo-Nazi living in Toronto who created the Web site.
But prosecutors are also looking at whether Telekom and CompuServe can be charged as accomplices by virtue of their helping to distribute the material.