The government of Germany's most populous state, NRW (North Rhine Westphalia), has won an important battle in its attempt to enforce a ban on websites containing neo-Nazi material.

NRW is the only state in Germany to impose such a ban and it has come up against plenty of opposition from ISPs in the process. But today a German regional court has backed the state, ordering an unnamed ISP to immediately block access to sites containing objectionable content. The ISP had previously filed a lawsuit challenging NRW's ban.

This is not the first time the courts have been called upon to mediate between NRW and an ISP over the ban. Back in October another regional court ruled against the state when an ISP objected to following the state government's website ban. NRW is appealing against this decision, but it is not known when a decision can be expected.

When NRW introduced the ban in February, it ordered 76 ISPs in the region to immediately stop access to offensive sites. Of these 17 rejected the ban, and 11 have gone to court to fight it.

Ultimately the decision as to whether NRW can ban neo-Nazi sites lies with the high courts. "The higher courts have the ultimate say, and that means lawsuits involving the website ban could go all the way to the federal constitutional court," said Jürgen Schütte, an official with the NRW state government.

The battle against neo-Nazi online services has been heating up ever since Germany's highest civil court ruled in late 2000 that the country's laws banning certain material can also be enforced against foreign-hosted sites.

The association of German internet businesses has criticised the NRW government ban as state censorship.

This all happens against the backdrop of arguments regarding a global ban on hate speech online, which is currently being proposed by the Council of Europe. But this has run into similar problems as the US argues
that it undermines its citizen's right to free speech.