PUTTING a lid on the amorphous Internet is proving more complicated than shutting Pandora's box.
Last week CompuServe, the on-line computer service, shut off worldwide access to some 200 newsgroups, or Internet discussion groups, that allegedly had pornographic content. German authorities in the state of Bavaria had warned the company that this content violated German federal law against child pornography.
The move, announced Dec. 28, is the most significant case yet of a government trying to censor the Internet. It highlights a culture gap between American notions of freedom of expression and German expectations of greater state control. It also raises plenty of questions over who rules the Internet.
The shutdown itself shows the difficulty in reconciling the anarchic nature of the Internet with that of regulated on-line services. Furthermore, would-be regulators are often frustrated by a lack of communication between the technical and legal communities.
Compuserve shut off access to the newsgroups worldwide because "we don't have the ability to suspend access on a geographic basis," says William Giles, a CompuServe spokesman in Columbus, Ohio. "We're working on that."
Mr. Giles explained that when the Bavarian police came calling at CompuServe's German headquarters near Munich, they presented a list of over 200 newsgroups with content prosecutors had decided was illegal.
"They told us to take whatever action was needed to bring us into compliance with the law," he said.
After reviewing the list, CompuServe decided in all but 20 or 30 cases to suspend access to the groups in question.
He said he did not expect any legal action, such as arrest warrants, to be taken against the firm. If CompuServe were found in violation of the law, however, it would mean not just fines but prison sentences.
In the end, the German authorities' move may have been more effective in raising ire within the 4-million-strong CompuServe worldwide client base than in actually censoring the Internet.
The "closed" newsgroups are still accessible to anyone with another way onto the Internet. Other newsgroups with blue material remain accessible. Moreover, the newsgroups are the relatively more "old-fashioned" part of the Net. The more graphic (in both senses) material is on the World Wide Web.
The Bavarian authorities' own unfamiliarity with the Internet may be an issue.
Giles said that CompuServe had to provide the investigating officers with some "education" as to the distinctions between its own services and those of the Internet, over which it has no control.
Did CompuServe just roll over at its first government challenge? Spokesman Giles defended the firm's swift compliance with the German request, criticizing as "arrogant" and "naive" the American view that First Amendment rights are or should be applicable worldwide.
"We're an international company that operates in 140 countries, and we've got to be in compliance with local laws," he said.
In any case, the Internet is not an institution that runs according to American standards. "We've already got the Chinese on the Internet, and the Iranians," says Ingo Ruhmann, a scientific adviser to the Green party in the Bundestag, or lower house of Parliament.
"What we connect with the Internet are different cultures and different legal concepts.... We can't expect that cultural differences that have developed over centuries to change within a few years," he adds.
Mr. Ruhmann suggests that CompuServe attracted official notice because it is the largest on-line service in Germany, with headquarters in socially and politically conservative Bavaria.
Ruhmann says that rather than passing new laws specific to the Internet - as many in the US Congress advocate - societies should examine existing laws, and see how they transfer to the electronic world. The German government, he says, has joined with others in seeing electronic mail as privileged private communications.
"The question is whether these newsgroups are private communications," he adds.
Although the CompuServe announcement evoked complaints within American media and within the Deutschland On line Forum, part of the story here is the dog that didn't bark. There is no civil liberties group here that can be counted on to step forward to make the case against government intrusion on individual rights.
Indeed, the CompuServe episode has played out just as Germany has lost a member of the Cabinet over another civil liberties issue.
Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger recently resigned because her Free Democratic Party approved a proposal to allow audio surveillance of private homes, which Chancellor Helmut Kohl's coalition government is seeking to legalize.