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Senate blasts bomb-making info on Net

Distributing bomb-making information on the Net would be illegal in most cases under Senate legislation being debated in the wake of the killings at a Colorado high school.

    Distributing bomb-making information on the Net would be illegal in most cases under Senate legislation being debated in the wake of the killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and a rash of subsequent threats at campuses around the country.

    With a 85-13 vote, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) successfully tacked an amendment onto the Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act yesterday. The provision prohibits teaching or demonstrating how to make explosives with the "intent" that the information will be used to commit a federal crime.

    The law would apply to any form of distribution--books, magazines, or videos, for example. However, like measures Feinstein has pushed in the past, the Net is once again the focal point. That's because the two teenagers, who witnesses say killed 13 people in Littleton, reportedly documented their weapon-making and massacre plans online.

    "The youngsters in Colorado who perpetrated the crime indicated they got the formula for the pipe bombs directly from the Internet," Feinstein stated on the Senate floor.

    The same bill, which is still being debated today, also would require that Net access providers offer customers filtering technologies and bans online gun or explosives sales that would violate existing laws.

    But First Amendment experts are alarmed by the bomb-making provision. They say it could apply to people who aren't inciting violence.

    "If a high school chemistry teacher posts online material for a course that he knows could be used to build a device, it's entirely possible that someone unknown to the teacher will use it to commit a federal crime of violence," said Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "That is problematic, because on the Net you can't know the intent of your audience."

    But Hatch says to be prosecuted, publishers would have to encourage violence along with the posting of bomb-making data. The Senator pointed to the Animal Liberation Front's Web site as an example of the type of material he wants to outlaw. The site has a pamphlet, Final Nail #2, which includes diagrams about how to build devices to set off fire alarm sprinklers or to damage stores that sell fur coats.

    "It is a detailed guide to terrorist activities," Hatch said on the Senate floor.

    "Why someone feels the need to put such harmful material on the Internet is beyond me; there certainly is no legitimate need for our kids to know how to make a bomb," he added. "[If a] person crosses the line to advocate the use of that knowledge for violent criminal purposes, or gives it out knowing it will be used for such purposes, then the law needs to cover that conduct."

    Although the Hatch-Feinstein amendment targets only those whose "intent" is to incite violence, free speech watchdogs today echoed concerns they have with a recent federal court decision in Oregon that held online speakers liable for inciting offline violence.

    In that case, U.S. District Judge Robert Jones issued a permanent injunction prohibiting a group of abortion foes from distributing "wanted" posters that list abortion providers' personal information and redistributing the data on sites such as the Nuremberg Files, which called for the "baby butchers" to be "brought to justice." The case is under appeal.

    "What remains to be resolved by the courts is 'how far is too far' in making information available that could be used in the commission of a crime," said David Sobel, general counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

    "I have concerns about how the [bomb-making] language might be applied," he added. "Provisions like this are subject to abuse in the hands of an overzealous prosecutor."

    Still other legal experts said the amendment likely would pass constitutional tests.

    "There are serious constitutional questions about regulating information about making bombs," said Lance Rose, author of NetLaw. "If this law is passed and it survives any constitutional challenges, there will be a fundamental proposition that you can regulate bomb information at least sometimes."

    But Rose added: "It's a slippery slope. Once you have a law like this in place, the question is, 'How far can they go?'"

    Despite the free speech debate, legal experts say lawmakers' campaigns to rid the Net of bomb-making information won't necessarily help to curb access to such information.

    "There is ample information available about this offline, including information from the Agricultural Department and U.S. military training manuals," the ACLU's Steinhardt said. "The Net is a global medium--a lot of information also comes from outside of the United States. This measure is totally futile."