Berlin Case Posts a Win For Freer Net


The first case in Germany, and perhaps the world, of criminal liability in connection with a link on an Internet home page has ended in acquittal.

The case illustrates both the principle of "what's illegal offline is illegal online" and the difficulty authorities have in dealing with those aspects of the Internet different from other forms of communication.

In Berlin, Judge Meline Schrer ruled in favor of Angela Marquardt, a young leftist politician who had built a link on her home page to Radikal, a left-wing extremist publication that, after the link was made, published articles on how to sabotage railway lines.

Disseminating such texts is illegal in Germany, as is helping to disseminate them. It was under the latter provision of the law that Ms. Marquardt was charged.

A hypertext link transports Web surfers from one site to another with a click of a mouse button. But Judge Schroer did not buy prosecutors' argument that builders of such links have a responsibility to monitor the content of sites to which their links refer. Such a responsibility would create a state of "considerable legal uncertainty," the judge said. Marquardt had explicitly distanced herself from the publishers of Radikal.

This historymaking trial was held in the splendor of the Berlin Amtsgericht, a municipal court where traffic violations are usually what's on the docket. The few-dozen courtroom spectators, mostly journalists, broke out in applause as the verdict was announced.

But the case is unlikely to be the last time German prosecutors try to go after what they see as unacceptable content on the Internet.

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