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Crimes of Anonymity

By Annalee Newitz

A STUDY released about a month ago by Israel's Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center has sparked a new round of hand-wringing about how the web is becoming a bad neighborhood. The study claimed that four websites belonging to Palestinian Islamic terrorist groups were being hosted by Internet service providers (ISPs) in the United States (you can read it online at www.intelligence.org.il/eng/sib/8_04/internet.htm).

Fearmongering and soul searching inevitably followed—:one particularly ridiculous article in The New York Times had the reporters interviewing confused New Jersey residents about how it felt to live down the street from an ISP that had hosted a terrorist website. A horrified woman asked, "How could it happen here?"

The answer, you anti-geniuses, is that it didn't happen here. The websites were all in Arabic, and they were all created by people "over there," OK? When you put something on the Internet, you don't inject little teeny people into the network and let them build bunkers in your web servers. A person in Israel can create and manage a website which is broadcast remotely from a U.S. server. Plus, it's not as if these U.S.-based ISP administrators could read Arabic. How the hell were they supposed to know what was on some random website in a foreign language—:one of thousands they hosted—:and whether it was terrorist or not? Should they have just refused to host any websites in Arabic because everybody knows that's the language of terrorism and evil?

My favorite part of the Israeli report was a section that says terrorists prefer to host their websites on U.S. servers because they get great tech support and protection under the First Amendment. We like our tech support, so clearly it's time to get rid of that goddamn First Amendment. After all, four (four!) whole nasty terrorist websites slipped through the cracks and were able to pay for hosting from ISPs in the United States. This is an epidemic of massive proportions. This incident has at last revealed the truth to everyone: free speech enables terrorism.

Luckily, U.S. legislators are already hard at work to keep our wonderful country safe from the freedoms outlined in its own Constitution. Two weeks ago, the House approved a bill called the "Fraudulent Online Identity Sanctions Act" (FOISA), which creates harsher prison sentences (up to seven years more) for people who commit fraud and other crimes using a website registered under a false name.

The bill is also aimed at people who are committing copyright or trademark infringement: fines for each infringed work posted on a pseudonymously registered site will increase by nearly $100,000, and it will be much harder to argue that the infringement was legal under fair use exemptions. It is not currently unlawful for people to register domains under false names (I can't tell you how many domains I've bought under the name Pseudo Nym at 69 Isfun St.), and this bill doesn't outlaw it either.

Given that everyone targeted by FOISA can already be brought up on charges or sued under current law, all FOISA does is associate anonymity with punishment. This makes it far less likely that people will be willing to register sites anonymously or pseudonymously—:at least, if they fear expensive court battles. FOISA is subtle poison being released into the environment for free expression.

The right to anonymous free speech, established by the First Amendment, is crucial for whistleblowers, kids, critics of government and industry, and people who want to talk about issues (like queerness, illness or religion) that might get them stigmatized in their communities. Yet with FOISA in place, it's likely that someone who wants to host an anonymous site about personal experiences with mental illness won't do it.

Why? Because she might inadvertently do something that infringes copyright—:like, say, post an informational video about Prozac—:and get slammed with huge fines. A critic of big business might have the same fear. What if Nike goes after her for trademark infringement because she is criticizing the company? It's not like these things don't happen all the time.

I think when people hear about FOISA, to the extent that they actually pay attention to obscure pieces of legislation related to domain name registration, they probably see it as a way to fight nasty bad guys or mean terrorists. After all, only a bad person would want to speak anonymously, right? Wrong. Just because I don't want to use my own name doesn't mean I should be denied a right to speak. More pertinently, it doesn't mean that I should be threatened with a bigger cudgel when I try to make fair use of copyrighted or trademarked material.

Once again, our efforts to stamp out crime on the Internet are stamping out our freedoms instead.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who don't need no stinking badges.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the October 6-12, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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