P By Sara Henneberger
Carnegie Mellon University
ITTSBURGH, Oct. 2 – “The most highly explosive and lethal mixture is ammonium nitrate-based fertilizer mixed with gasoline,” reads a tip on how to make an effective Moltov cocktail.
Written by 19-year-old Californian Sherman Austin, a copy of the guide containing this and many other recipes for explosives can be found on the website of Carnegie Mellon Computer Science Professor David Touretzky.
In September 2001, Austin published a “Reclaim Guide” of instructions for resisting arrest during riots and manufacturing a variety of weapons on his self-proclaimed anarchist website, Raisethefist.com.
Federal agents raided Austin’s San Fernando Valley home on Jan. 24 and confiscated computer equipment, political literature, and items for making explosives.
A week and a half later, the teen was arrested during World Economic Forum demonstrations in New York and charged with violating 1997 US Code title 18, section 842, which prohibits the demonstration of how to make or use explosives and weapons of mass destruction with the intention that the information will be used for violent crimes.
Last Monday, Austin entered a guilty plea to one felony count of violating the statute. He could face one month in jail, five months in a halfway home, and three years of probation. Prosecutors are also asking that Austin have “reasonable limitations on computer access” which could prohibit him from running Raisethefist.com. Austin is scheduled to be sentenced today.
Raisethefist.com was off-line for several weeks following Austin’s arrest before reappearing courtesy of the Seattle-based Hypodermic.net. The site no longer contains the Reclaim Guide and there is a disclaimer stating that the site does not encourage illegal activities.
One of the few nearly-complete copies of the Reclaim Guide still available on the Internet has been posted on the University-owned website of Touretzky since the end of January 2002.
Touretzky, who declined to comment, states on his website that he questions the validity of title 18, section 842, and that he wishes to encourage public debate of the Austin case through his own publication of potentially illegal materials. Touretzky includes multiple disclaimers on his site that he does not advocate violence or agree with the personal beliefs of Austin.
As Austin faces jail time for the very content now found on Touretzky’s website, some campus members are debating the ethical and legal implications of the Reclaim Guide.
“I feel that since there is no legitimate reason for distributing information pertaining to street weapons, such information should not be present on the Internet,” said Nicole Saulnier, a sophomore electrical and computer engineering major and chair of the College Republicans. “If someone stood downtown in Pittsburgh and gave lessons on building a bomb to anyone who decided to listen, that individual would be representing a clear danger to the country. It doesn’t matter what that individual believes — he is still teaching people whose beliefs he does not know or control.”
“I think Dr. Touretzky is just being consistent with his philosophy, which is admirable,” said Quinten Steenhuis, a junior in logic and computation. “His stance makes sense to me, although we can certainly question whether this was the right cause to take a stand for.”
John Lerchey, computer and network security coordinator, explained that Touretzky’s copy of the Reclaim Guide is within the bounds of University website content policy. Lerchey said that pornography, copyrighted materials, and business ventures are included on an unspecific list of prohibited materials.
No procedure exists to monitor student and faculty websites for potentially illegal material. Usually, Computing Services is alerted to questionable material via complaints from individuals both on and off campus.
Lerchey estimated that he has received six complaints about Touretzky’s copy of the Reclaim Guide since January.
“In general, the complaints that come in about Professor Touretzky’s web page are more frequent and more consistent [than those for other University websites]. But even still, it’s not a large number,” said Lerchey.
Lerchey said that Touretzky’s copy of the explosives guide is not illegal, and that Computing Services will not ask him to remove or alter his site at this time.
“I don’t think it in any way encourages people to go blow up buildings,” said Lerchey. “It was pretty clear to me that there was not an intent to do harm. It’s just instructions on how to build a bomb.”
Lerchey recalled that several years ago, a group of students published pro-Nazi materials on their University-based websites. Because the sites did not encourage violence, they were permitted to stay up. “We very rarely have to take down web pages,” said Lerchey.
Philosophy Professor Peter Madsen said that the case of Sherman Austin and the subsequent rally of support for and against Internet censorship has been compounded by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
“There is a real tension between the perceived rights of the individual and the perceived rights of the community,” said Madsen, who serves as the executive director of the CMU-based Center for the Advancement of Applied Ethics.
In the wake of terrorist attacks, there has been a shift in favor of the concerns and fears of the community. Touretzky’s website challenges that shift and asserts the free speech rights of the individual.
“What Professor Touretzky’s site does is place him squarely in the camp that says: ‘This is cyber space. This is free space. And I’m going to prove that it’s so,'” said Madsen.
Some Austin supporters argue that prior to September 11, 2001, Raisethefist.com would not have been subjected to federal scrutiny and its author would not have been arrested under title 18, section 842.
“Things have changed,” said Madsen. “Some materials found online may seem to benefit terrorists, but of course, terrorists are probably already adept at what they do.”
Madsen sees the current University web content policy as a gray area. He believes that administrators should respond to campus and community concerns about the availability of an explosives guide on a University website by setting up opportunities to debate the issue.
“There are certain cases in which restrictions of freedom make sense. However, freedom is what this country is about,” said Madsen. “The more we restrict freedom of expression, the more the terrorists have won.”