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Vote imminent on anti-terrorist law

Congress could vote as early as today on a bill that would try to limit terrorism by making it illegal to post information on the Net about bombs or bomb-making.

The Clinton Administration and members of Congress are today continuing to push for an immediate vote on legislation that would make it a felony to publish information about bombs and bomb-making on the Internet.

The amendment to the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1995 was introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) earlier this week after the explosion in Atlanta's Centennial Park.

Feinstein has not issued a statement, but her press office this morning said that Congress "is trying to do something as soon as possible." The rush to pass this amendment is a result of a meeting that Clinton called at the White House where he told democractic leaders to take action this week. "They are literally flying by the seat of their pants and we don't know when they are going to make a decision at this time," said a member of Feinstein's press office.

The amendment 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. If passed, violators of the law could face up to 20 years in jail and or $250,000 fines. The amendment also would allow the government to tap private phone lines for up to 48 hours without obtaining a court order.

The amendment would also cover books, journals, and other printed material, but the media and Congress seems most concerned about the obvious proliferation of bomb-making information on the Net. Feinstein's office and the White House are anxious to rush the bill through in a desire to tangibly address the growing domestic terrorist threat.

Online activist Declan McCullagh, however, says the bill also reflects a growing fear not just of terrorism but of the Internet itself. "The Internet represents a revolutionary form of communication and I think governments are afraid of this," said McCullagh. "I don't hear for a call for censorship of libraries where you can find bomb-making information so I think to be fair they should go after the Library of Congress because you can find a lot of dirty stuff there," he said.

The United States government is not alone in its fight to crack down on terrorism on the Internet. At a meeting this week in Paris, the G-7 government officials discussed plans to strictly regulate the Internet to combat terrorism. G-7 countries include France, Italy, Japan, Britain, Germany, Canada, and the United States. Russia also participated in the meeting.

In response to those and other efforts to limit Internet activity, organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the Internet Society, and the Human Rights Watch formed the Global Internet Liberty Campaign to advocate worldwide free speech and privacy on the Internet.

"There's a threat today that hasty action after Atlanta and New York is going to lead to an unnecessary crackdown on the Internet and that's what we're trying to avoid," said Marc Rotenberg, director of EPIC.

McCullagh says there's a difference between allowing the government to regulate the Internet and allowing them to find terrorists. "Monitoring terrorism communications is fine in principle. I'm all in favor of catching terrorists, but terrorists have to operate in a physical space somewhere, so why not go after them in physical space rather than restricting communications just in case there's a terrorist on the Internet? It's like giving the government the front door key to your house just in case you're a terrorist," he said.

Monitoring activity on the Internet might be an invasion of privacy, but some say the positives outweigh the negative. "People should be monitored and the courts should have a say about the whole thing," said a United Nations official who wished to remain anonymous. "I think this is a situation that has been brought about by the world in which we live in. A lot of people probably feel that it is better to be safe when they go to an Olympic event than worrying about the ability to write about whatever they want on the Internet."

But McCullagh warns that this could only be the beginning. "It's the slippery slope argument--once you allow the government to engage in content based censorship they will go after more and more legitimate information," he said.

The efforts by the G-7 countries also raise the question of whether several countries can come to an agreement about regulating the Net. "Everyone from Singapore and Vietnam to Germany and France have tried to regulate the Internet and they are have all included very different laws for very different reasons," said Rotenberg.

McCullagh agrees that finding a mutually acceptable standard will be difficult, if not impossible. "The United States can be a content haven for controversial political speech. We don't mind political satire and our libel laws are fairly decent, unlike the UK. Amsterdam may be a content haven for sexually explicit material and offshore ISPs in the Caribbean like Belize might be content havens for gambling so what this means is that the governments are going to have a very tough time agreeing on anything," said McCullagh.

But the fact that the governments of several countries are trying to negotiate such an agreement only underscores the importance they place on policing the Net, said Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the ACLU. "The notion that the Russians are sitting there with the United States issuing statements about investigating Internet activity is frightening."

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