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France Aims to Beat The Net By Curbing It

US on-line services are worried about 'impractical' laws

NO more fumbling for change at the front door. France Telecom's latest on-line terminal allows you to order a pizza from your keyboard, insert a bank card, and debit your checking account.

But France Telecom concedes that such an improvement will not be enough to see France's home-grown on-line service, the Minitel, through to the next century. The future, he says, lies in expanding France's telecom system to connect Minitel users to the Internet - and then controlling it.

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France was later than most industrial countries to join the communications revolution. A popular saying in the 1960s observed that half of France was waiting for a phone and the other half for a dial tone.

An ambitious government program to catch up, launched in 1974, brought some millions of new phone users and, in 1983, gave them free terminals to access the latest phone listings on line from home.

Some 6.5 million households have these Minitel terminals, which provide 25,000 on-line services (besides ordering pizza), while only 60,000 to 100,000 French users have access to the Internet.

But those numbers are changing fast. The American on-line service provider CompuServe has seen its French customer base leap from 1,000 in 1993 to 52,000 today, and spokesmen in France say they expect "exponential growth" in the French market. America Online (AOL) opened its Paris office March 18.

France Telecom hopes to co-opt this growth by developing its own platform to link Minitel users to the Internet. Minitel technology has been around since the 1970s. Due to its late start into the phone market, France has a strong fiber-optic network in place.

"We've reached our maturity and don't expect any further growth," says the France Telecom spokesman. "Our aim now is to develop a platform that will connect all on-line services, including CompuServe and AOL."

The benefit of control

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French officials claim two advantages for their proposed system: Businesses will be able to charge individuals for time spent on their Internet sites, and more important, it will give governments clout in determining the content of Internet transactions.

Current service providers on the Minitel system must agree to respect a 24-page contract that outlaws pornography, racism, promotion of "sects" [a term that in France covers a wide range of religious minorities], and certain forms of gambling. Once the new platform is in place, all service providers who want to have access to France must respect that contract, spokesmen say.

"Expanded use of the Internet in France raises serious questions of public order, protection of youth, as well as rights of authors," says Herve Soymie, director of the Conseil Superieur de la Telematique, the French government agency that recommends sanctions for abuses on the Minitel. "It's unthinkable that service providers should be making money on the Internet and not be responsible to national norms."

"Many say it's not possible to control the Internet, but even if it's not technically possible today, a way must be found," he adds. "We must not be defeated without even trying."

A feasibility problem

But American service providers, such as CompuServe, disagree. They insist that controlling the Internet from the source, rather than the computer terminal itself, is neither technically feasible nor legally viable. Nevertheless, they are watching such recent European efforts to impose national controls over Internet content with trepidation.

"Governments are free to pass whatever laws they feel are appropriate, but when they enforce those laws they need to go to the people who are breaking the law - not just to the access providers," says a top lawyer for CompuServe, based in Columbus, Ohio.

The US government has done just that in a two-year FBI sting operation on AOL against child pornography and molestation that ended last year and brought a dozen arrests. To leave the onus of enforcement on service providers, they say, is unfair.

Last December, CompuServe shut down some 200 sexually explicit news groups after investigators in Munich found several Internet pages they said were illegal under German law. The services have since been reinstated after CompuServe installed a new set of parental controls. Internet access providers hope to preempt future government incursions by providing users with ways to screen Internet services for themselves and their children.

"More and more governments are starting to realize that it's impractical to simply hold access providers liable," says the CompuServe lawyer. "The Internet is designed so that when someone tries to censure information it finds a way around the problem."

In France, a judicial investigation is pending that could result in charges against Internet providers for the diffusion of neo-Nazi material. But in Germany, a new multimedia law would not require service providers to police the Internet, said German Justice Minister Edzard Schmidt-Jortzig last month.

"Someone who opens a door cannot know what the people who walk through it are going to be carrying," he said.

"And if there were body searches for everyone going through your door, people would simply choose to go through another," he added.

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