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Terrorism fight spreads to Net

Cyber-rights groups are preparing to challenge legislation aimed at clamping down on Internet information in the fight against terrorism.

In what is shaping up as a replay of the battle over the Communications Decency Act, the government is redoubling its efforts to clamp down on the free flow of online information because of suspected links between terrorism and the Internet--and cyber-citizens are already organizing to fight the new initiative.

Many law enforcement officials say an increase in terrorist acts, particularly pipe bombings, is at least partially attributable to the amount of information on how to make explosives that is available on the Internet. Government officials want to censor the Net in an effort to stem such communications.

Some argue that pranksters and dedicated political terrorists alike can request information and share tips with other bomb makers in a variety of online newsgroups. Although nearly all of the actual techniques could also be found in libraries, law enforcement authorities point out that the Net makes the information that much more available.

Bombings believed to be related to the Internet have increased in recent years. In Los Angeles, for example, the number of explosive devices found by the police department has risen 50 percent in the last two years, many of them made with information obtained online, said Lieutenant Tom Spencer, head of the department's arson and explosives detail.

Accepting this apparent correlation between bombs and the Net as fact, the government wants to make it a felony to disseminate bomb-making information not only on the Internet but also in print, on radio, and on television. Such a proposal was thrown out Tuesday at a meeting of G-7 government leaders representing France, Italy, Japan, Britain, Germany, Canada, and the United States to discuss the recent bombing at the Olympics in Atlanta and the explosion of TWA Flight 800.

The proposed law called for violators to face up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The measure would have criminalized everything from a high school chemistry teacher's explanation of scientific principles on the Net to a newspaper's publication of an illustration of a bomb's construction. Government officials also said they would use the Internet to monitor terrorist communications and would prohibit encryption technology not regulated by the government.

Politicians in the United States are already trying to account for the Net in a fight to strengthen the anti-terrorism legislation enacted after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) has re-introduced an amendment into the counter-terrorism legislation that would make it unlawful for "any person to teach or demonstrate the making of explosive materials, or to distribute by any means information pertaining to...the manufacture of explosive materials if the person intends or knows that such explosive materials will be used" in a criminal manner.

The original bill contained the amendment when it passed by the Senate last year, but the House removed it before the legislation was signed by President Clinton. Such an amendment would make it illegal to distribute bomb-making instructions over the Internet, as well as in books or other paper publications.

A spokesperson for Feinstein said the members of a bipartisan group called to examine the amendment are still "throwing ideas on the table. We don't know what will come out by the end of the week."

With such laws on the horizon, civil liberties and cyber-rights groups are already organizing opposition in the same way they fought the federal Communications Decency Act, which seeks to regulate online content deemed indecent.

The ACLU, which headed the main court challenge to the CDA, today joined with other civil liberties and human rights organizations, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Human Rights Watch, The Internet Society, and Privacy International, to form a group called the Global Internet Liberty Campaign.

The group's charter is to fight any such proposed legislation intended to curb terrorism by restricting the flow of Internet communications, arguing both that such laws are unconstitutional and ineffective in fighting the more serious bombing incidents such as the TWA and Centennial Park explosions.

The group may look for allies among psychologists who agree that the increase in bombing incidents and the expansion of the Internet are coincidental.

Neal Goldsmith, a social psychologist who publishes an ezine called BusinessTech, agrees and says that blaming the Internet for the rash of bombings is "like blaming the spread of the Ebola virus on the airline industry. It's the difference between content and process: bomb-making is around because of the culture, not the medium. Perhaps the ease of communicating now in a global world makes the problem more dangerous to society."

Clark Staten, executive director with the Emergency Response and Research Institute, says the availability of step-by-step bombing instructions is nothing new and agrees that the recent explosions should not be attributed to the Internet. "The last time I looked in the library, I found a lot of information there regarding bombs, so I'm not so sure all these articles are true that say bomb information is unique on the Internet," he said.

The possibility of government regulations makes Staten and other Net advocates nervous because they claim that it may set a precedent for broader censorship. "If the government gets involved, they are going to get involved in censorship on the Internet, period," Staten said. "We don't agree with people who put dangerous information on the Internet, but I think we have to be careful about what limits we set on government restrictions of communications...I think we need to speak about the people who are committing these acts, rather than focusing on an information resource such as the Internet."

Unfortunately, more and more of those people are teenagers who are being exposed to the lure of bombing experiments on the Web, according to the LAPD's Spencer. "What concerns us is that kids are getting on the Net now, and they come across explosives or bombs, and they can bring it up and maybe try to experiment with it."

Incidents involving teenagers, bombs, and the Net have been reported recently in Palo Verdes, California; Minoa, New York; and Edmonton and Calgary, Canada. Some of those cases involve blowing up cars and mailboxes, but one teen blew off his thumb with a homemade bomb cooked up with a recipe found on the Net.

"The Net won't tell you how to handle the stuff correctly, and subsequently kids are losing hands and fingers and ears and everything else because of that," Spencer said.

While the argument against Net regulation remains essentially the same--be it over pornography or bomb instructions--these kinds of stories may make a battle for public opinion over terrorism laws harder to fight than the CDA.