Washington, D.C. -- The Internet had its head placed on the chopping block during a Congressional hearing today (May 11th).
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) put it there. Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) tied its hands, while Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) weilded the axe.
Specter, as chairman of the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Government Information, called the hearing to investigate "The Availability of Bomb Making Information on the Internet." The hearing focused on "the use of the Internet by a variety of groups and individuals to propagate 'mayhem manuals,' which as their name suggests, are guides to assist people in committing acts of violence," Specter said.
Specter didn't mince words about his intentions. The subtext of the hearing was that the Internet, somehow, now represents a "clear and present danger" to the American way of life, threatening innocent citizens and children. "There are serious questions about whether it is technologically feasible to restrict access to the Internet or to censor certain messages," Specter said.
Feinstein rode into the hearing with blinders on. "I have a problem with people teaching others" how to build bombs that kill, she said. The First Amendment doesn't extend to the that kind of information, she said, especially when it resides in electronic format so easily available.
Her remarks were directed at a panel of experts who had, for the most part, acknowledged that such information was readily available on the Net, but nonetheless was indeed protected by the First Amendment.
The First Amendment argument didn't fly with Feinstein, who railed at the panel's testimony. "You really have my dander up," she said. "This is not what this country is about."
That remark drew a sharp response from Jerry Berman, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology: "Excuse me, Senator, but that is what this nation is all about."
Feinstein would hear nothing of it. "I believe there is a difference between free speech and teaching someone to kill," she said, "And all we're doing here is protecting [terrorist information] under the mantle of free speech."
Feinstein, former mayor of San Francisco, one of America's most liberal cities, carried a lot of baggage into the hearing; she was once the failed target of a letter bomb addressed to her office while mayor, according to a Subcommittee staffer.
Sen. Kohl waded into the hearing reading from a tired script, saying that America would "be shocked" if they knew about "dark back alleys" of the "information superhighway." Kohl paid lip-service to the Constitution, saying that government shouldn't "be in the business of telling people what they can and cannot think." However, that didn't stop him from suggesting that government has every right to "prevent people from endangering public safety," which really means restricting access -- somehow -- to the "dangerous" (ooohhh....) "dark back alleys" of the Internet.
His suggestions: (1) Parents should be notified every time their kids get an online account. (2) Every parent should be able to block a kid's access to whatever areas they want. "If we have the technology to get kids on the Internet, we should have the technology to get them off it," he said. (3) Online companies should rip out a page from the video game industry, where "industry-wide cooperation to restrict access to minors has forestalled government intervention," he said.
The vid-game industry, right, those cozy folks that bring Mortal Kombat into your living room and shopping malls, where even 8-year olds know how to punch in the infamous "blood codes" which, when enabled, show defeated characters being gutted while still alive, leaving the screen oozing. And this is the same video industry which drew a sharp rebuke from Sen. Specter himself last December when he found out that the so-called "industry-wide cooperation" to label games with "ratings" wasn't being implemented on anything more than a piecemeal basis.
Fueling this hysteria-circus was Robert Litt, deputy assistant attorney general, Criminal Div. of the Department of Justice. Litt mouthed to the Subcommittee what will certainly become the "Scare Monger's Anthem": "Not only do would-be terrorists have access to detailed information on how to construct explosives, but so do children."
... And so do children...
"This problem can only grow worse as more families join the Internet 'society,'" Litt warned. .
"... And so do children..."
But does any of this so-called terrorist information require any kind of congressional Constitutional tweaking? Not according to Litt's own testimony. There are, on the books now, "a number of federal laws" that can be used to "prosecute bomb-related offenses," and those can be directly transferred to any such investigations linked to the Internet, Litt testified, adding that such laws "can be applied even when the offense is accomplished through speech."
Read it again: "[A]pplied even... through speech." If that was the sound of a hammer falling -- or an axe -- you're right.
Litt outlined how current laws protect even bomb making materials on the Internet as expressions of free speech; however, he noted, with some glee, that the proposals before Congress right now, offered up by the White House, will "permit the government to better track and prosecute those who misuse information available on the Internet...."
The hysteria of these doomsayers, however, ran into an unexpected brick wall during the hearing. Sen. Specter asked Litt point-blank if he had any kind of statistics or "direct knowledge" of any "criminal act" that had resulted from anyone obtaining information off the Internet. "No Senator, we do not," Litt answered somewhat shyly. Specter reframed the question -- twice -- giving Litt a chance to weasel an answer, but there was no weasel room.
The cold, hard facts are and remain: No law enforcement agency has been able to link any criminal act to any information now residing on the Internet.
But this wasn't good enough for Specter, who asked Litt to go back and "investigate" the question and report his findings back to the Subcommittee.
Another blow to Internet foes was the testimony of Frank Tuerkheimer. Tuerkheimer, a professor of law at the U. of Wisconsin, made his fame in the 1970s as the U.S. Attorney which successfully argued to stop the publication of the "How to Make an H-Bomb" article in the Progressive magazine. He won that case, which he admitted today, he had little enthusiasm for trying because the information in the article was gathered from public domain sources. However, all of that effort was moot point, he noted: Some other publication printed the article anyway.
Information will find a way to get out, Tuerkheimer said. "We're not talking about regulating information," he said, "we're talking about regulating 'information-plus." That's when the information is taken and used in the commission of a criminal act, and it's that combination that needs to be addressed, not the information, he said.
Putting a fine point on his arguments, Tuerkheimer noted in his testimony that the Encyclopedia Britannica "reveals great detail on explosive manufacture." [It's all right there on on pages 275-282 of Vol. 21 of the 1986 edition.] Adding insult to injury, he pointed out that on page 279 of that section, there is a description of the Ammonium Nitrate/Fuel oil mixture bomb like that used in the Oklahoma City bombing!
I wonder, now, if Sen. Feinstein will rush to outlaw the encyclopedia... or maybe she'll introduce a bill that will have librarians issued X-acto knives to cut out just those pages. "...so the children" won't have access....
Perhaps Tuerkheimer's finest blow was when he noted that the Department of Agriculture Forestry Service publishes the "Blaster's Handbook" (written with taxpayer money) that also includes a recipe for the Ammonium Nitrate/Fuel oil bomb like that used to blow little kids into chunks in the Oklahoma City bombing.
America's online sweetheart, America Online, was represented ably by William Burrington. He admitted to the Subcommittee that although his company monitored "selected areas" for violations of the company's terms of service, there was no possible to keep an eye on every public message. The point he hammered on -- and rightly so -- is that the "information ocean" that is the Internet is impossible to place restrictions on "because of its international nature," he said, more than once. Any laws the U.S. might try to apply don't mean shit internationally, as Burrington tried to point out, a point that apparently fell on deaf ears.
One pair of ears that didn't fail to hear were those of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont). This old warhorse continued to be what increasingly sounds like the only voice of reason on Capitol Hill. "Before we head down a road that leads to censorship," he said, "we must think long and hard about its consequences."
Leahy is bothered about "tragic events" such as the Oklahoma bombing as much as anyone, he said. However, the "same First Amendment that protects each of us and our right to think and speak as we choose, protects others as well," he said. It is "harmful and dangerous conduct, not speech, that justify adverse legal consequences," Leahy noted.
There is "little to be gained in the way of safety by banning" access to so-called terrorist information "over electronic media," Leahy said, especially when it's so readily available in paper form... even from the Agriculture Department. Hell, there's probably even an government sponsored 800 number you can call to order the "Blaster's Handbook."
In one lengthy discussion, Specter cited an Internet posting in which the poster asked for bomb making information that he (or she, gender wasn't noted) could use against "zionist government officials." Specter asked the panel if such a message could be considered a crime.
"No," said the Justice Department's Litt. "But what about the response to the message?" Specter asked. Such a response "approaches, if it hasn't already crossed the line, a prosecutorial offense," Litt said.
Tuerkheimer disagreed. "Too general," he said. There's "no target" identified, "it's hard to see how the Justice Department could prosecute" the responder to that message, he said.
Of course, Specter's query begs the question: Would it be a crime to respond to the "bomb information wanted" message by sending them a copy of the taxpayer funded, government-sponsored "Blaster's Handbook"? You make the call, because if you don't, Congress will.
"In other words, the industry acts now or Congress will do it for you," Kohl said.
I doubt he was joking.