Linking to neo-Nazi websites in Germany can cost you dear. The founder of a German online protest forum - http://censorship.odem.org/ - against web censorship was sentenced by the district court in Stuttgart today for linking to two neo-Nazi sites and a bad-taste website hosted in the US.
Alvar Freude is not an advocate of neo-Nazi content but thinks of himself as a fighter for a free internet and freedom of information. But links to the websites of neo-Nazis Gary Lauck and Dan Block and the legendarily nasty rotten.com landed him with a fine of €3,000.
The case results from the debate surrounding website blocking orders issued in 2001 by the district government of Dusseldorf to ISPs in North Rhine-Westphalia. The authority demanded blocking of the domain names nazi-lauck-nsdapao.com and stormfront.com by domain name or IP address.
Challenges to the blocking orders from several ISPs are pending court hearings. Freude, however, published critical commentaries on and analysis of the debate and linked to the barred websites. For his trouble, the district government reported him to the local constabulary. He was found guilty of "aiding and abetting access" to material published by people "inciting racial hatred [and] denying the Holocaust" - a criminal offence in Germany.
Freude tried hard to convince the court that the Nazi links were merely documenting part of the website-blocking case. To block access was the wrong way to fight Neo-nazism, he argued. It could even endanger the constitutional right to freedom of information, since blocking lists might grow once the precedent was set.
Another provocation to the Dusseldorf authorities was a project called "freedomfone", in which Freude had offered people the chance to call a premium-rate phone number to get blocked web content read aloud to them. "Is somebody restricting your internet access? No problem, use FreedomFone to get the missing information over the net!" reads the promotion.
"I did not expect people to call and in fact nobody called. It's satirical," explained Freude to the judge and district attorney.
But neither found it funny. The district attorney said Freude risked "confusing young people" by making Nazi propaganda available to them. If the only intention was to fight for freedom of information he should avoid linking to the content that he knew was illegal.
Freude's work did not qualify as documentary, according to district attorney and judge. This would protect him against punishment according to an exemption in the penal law. "Documentary is for museums or exhibitions," said the attorney, adding that newspapers too enjoyed this exemption. But this was not the case for Freude. The judge agreed with this analysis when passing sentence: "It is not research, education or reporting," she said, before further declaring the freedomfone project "too flimsy for art".
Freude's lawyer was annoyed by the lack of reasons given for the sentence. In his summing up he argued that Freude had "nothing, and nothing at all" to do with the content of any of the the sites he had linked to. The website, he noted, had been used by the media and other legal experts as source material during the debate and was therefore nothing more than record of current events. "This kind of documentation is not only not illegal, but in fact socially desirable." Freude's lawyer said his client would appeal the sentence.
Difficult questions lay ahead for the German criminal justice system: what is "documentation" and what is not? And who can claim that his or her work is documentation? Would Freude's work qualify as such if he had a title or worked for an institution? The district government of Dusseldorf does not link to the domain adresses of the Nazi websites, yet publishes them on its own website. Is there a difference between a linking to, as opposed to simply publishing a domain name? None of these questions has yet been addressed by the courts. ®