German book publisher Bertelsmann AG said yesterday it has asked its US-based online book-selling venture, Barnesandnoble.com, to make sure that illegal "hate literature" is not being sold in Germany.
The move comes after a prominent US Jewish group, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, sent letters on Monday asking both Amazon.com and Bertelsmann, which owns about 40 per cent of Barnesandnoble.com, to halt the sale of books such as Hitler's Mein Kampf in Germany. Barnes & Noble owns the rest of the online bookseller, which is the second largest in the world, behind Amazon.com, according to Bertelsmann.
The issue, which has stirred strong feelings in Germany, again illustrates the inability to control clashing national laws when it comes to the Internet.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, an associate dean at the Wiesenthal Center, sent the letters to Amazon.com founder and chief executive officer Jeffrey Bezos, and to Thomas Middelhoff, chairman of Bertelsmann AG. A researcher at the Wiesenthal Center was able to directly order not only Mein Kampf, but other books that the group considers hate literature, including The Protocols for the Elders of Zion, The Turner Diaries and Hunter.
The Wiesenthal Center has also contacted Germany's Justice Minister to determine whether selling such books violates German laws, according to information on the centre's Web site.
Christian Arns, a spokesman for the German Federal Justice Ministry, confirmed yesterday that spreading propaganda or material that "incites people" is illegal in Germany. This applies no matter what the medium, he said.
"What is forbidden offline is also forbidden online," Arns said.
As the Justice Ministry is not responsible for prosecuting criminals, however, it will not take specific measures in this case, Arns said. The responsibility for bringing charges against organisations that violate Germany's propaganda laws would lie with a state prosecutor's office, he said. As of yet, there is no way to identify which state office would have jurisdiction over this issue, he added.
The Justice Ministry will ask the US Department of Justice to use its influence to "show more sensibility when it comes to freedom of expression", Arns said. The Ministry will also appeal to Bertelsmann's chairman to use his influence to prevent the materials from being sent to Germany.
Germany has strict laws governing anything that glorifies or incites violence, whereas US laws give individuals a wider scope for free expression.
A government-owned review board in Bonn looks at different published documents to see if they conflict with German laws to protect young people, for example. In 1995, German state authorities prosecuted Gary Lauk, an American citizen, who was convicted for distributing illegal literature that encouraged racial hatred. Lauk was given a four-year prison sentence.
In a written statement yesterday, Bertelsmann responded to the Wiesenthal Center's requests by saying that it has asked Barnesandnoble.com's chairman, Len Riggio, to take into account German laws, and to see that Nazi propaganda is not delivered to Germany.
This measure, however, does not solve the larger problem of balancing "different interpretations of the right to free expression on the one hand and the protection of democracy from extreme influences on the other", according to the Bertelsmann statement.
Politicians and companies must sit down and discuss how to reconcile different national laws for electronic commerce, but the feasibility of that is still unclear, Bertelsmann said.
Officials at Amazon.com in Seattle could not be reached immediately for comment. However, a spokeswoman for Amazon.de, the German division of Amazon, responded that Amazon in Germany does not sell any books that conflict with Germany's laws.
"We do not sell such books, either in German or English," said Martina Fruehwald, Amazon.de's spokeswoman. "We adhere to German laws which forbid literature that glorify violence," she said.
Even if the companies do forbid the sale of such books by their German divisions, that does not prevent German citizens from getting their hands on them.
"The Internet makes possible global communications and global e-commerce. German citizens can also easily order books from Barnesandnoble.com, Bertelsmann said in its statement.