BONN, Germany (AP) - Germany passed a law Friday to keep out cyberspace smut and Nazi propaganda, but critics said it was still too vague on what responsibilities on-line services had for content they didn't create or control.
Also aimed at boosting electronic commerce, the law penalizes on-line providers for providing a venue for material that is illegal in Germany even if it originated beyond Germany's borders.
Research and technology minister Juergen Ruettgers said children must be protected against material deemed offensive.
"That applies even to a network that knows no national borders," he said. "The Internet is not outside the reach of the law."
Ruettgers said the new law also clarifies key legal issues regarding commerce on the Internet.
It makes Germany the first country to set rules for so-called digital signatures, codes used to protect Internet communications and give them the status of a legal document, he said.
The law gained final approval in the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, only six months after the government proposed it. It takes effect Aug. 1.
Christopher Kuner, a Frankfurt attorney specializing in cyberspace issues, said the law was too vague on what liability on-line providers have. "It leaves a lot of things open," he said.
The American Chamber of Commerce in Germany said liability for on-line services will have to be tested by court rulings, which "may cause prudent investors to hesitate."
Under the law, on-line providers can be prosecuted for offering a venue for content illegal in Germany if they do so knowingly and it is "technically possible and reasonable" to prevent it.
This could apply to World Wide Web sites, chat rooms, bulletin boards and similar exchanges originating in other countries and offered by German on-line services without direct control over their content.
Service companies like CompuServe and America Online maintain they only provide a connection like a telephone company, which is not held responsible for everything its customers say on the phone.
But in an illustration of the difficulties involved, a key provision of a 1996 U.S. law against indecency online was invalidated last month by the U.S. Supreme Court, which said that, in seeking to protect children, the law trampled on the rights of adults.
German prosecutors have been in the forefront of attempts to rein in the globe-spanning free-for-all on the Internet.
A leftist politician, Angela Marquardt, was charged with helping others learn how to commit crimes by linking her Internet site to an electronic magazine that included articles on how to build bombs and derail trains.
A Berlin court cleared Marquardt on Monday, without delving into the issue of how courts should deal with material banned in Germany but stored on a computer somewhere else.
In Munich, Bavarian prosecutors have charged the German chief of the U.S. on-line service CompuServe Inc. with "knowingly" allowing pornographic images, including child pornography, to reach customers from the Internet.