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Levy, Steven. The Senate's bomb scare.(Senate proposal to ban
information on the making of explosive devices on the Internet).
In Newsweek August 12 1996, v128, n7, p48(1).
Yes, it's easy to get explosive information. It's even easier to
blame the Internet.
HOW DO YOU MAKE A PIPE bomb? Whether your curiosity is idle or
deadly, you can find the answer on the Internet. "It's a pipe, a
plain old plumbing pipe, threaded ends with caps screwed to both
ends," we learn from one site on the World Wide Web, that portion of
the Internet where anyone can reach a potential audience of millions.
A diagram is helpfully supplied, and we see where to put the powder,
the fuse and even the tissue paper, which seems to be a handy filler
at the bottom of the pipe.
You want this stopped? Tell it to Ted Turner: that diagram appears on
his Cable News Network Web site. But graphic descriptions of the
heartbreakingly simple pipe bomb were ubiquitous last week, and not
just on the Net. The American media's collective news judgment was
that the public needed to know exactly how easy it was to build one
of those devices, and how deadly they can be. Reasonable people can
argue with that assessment, but I doubt that many would suggest that
Turner and his fellow publishers should spend 20 years in jail. Yet
that is the U.S. Senate's suggested penalty for those who "distribute
by any means information pertaining to ... the manufacture of
explosive materials," if there is an intent or expectation that
readers may act on that information. That's language vague enough to
possibly cover not only a news organization that posts the blueprints
of a pipe bomb but a high-school chemistry teacher who demonstrates
what happens when unfriendly materials go swoosh in the night.
But the legislation's real target is the government's favorite
punching bag, the Internet. "When technology allows for bomb-making
material over computers to millions of people in a matter of
seconds," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, at a
hearing for the proposed amendment to a defense bill, "I believe that
some restrictions on speech are appropriate."
It's easy to see what's bugging her, and it's not CNN. Last week I
connected to Alta Vista, an Internet search location, and typed in
"explosives." Bingo. On the screen came the names of 10 sites, the
first set of thousands that matched my request. One of these, only a
mouseclick away, was the notorious "Terrorist's Handbook," offering a
complete hands-on tutorial of bomb construction. A mass murderer's
"Joy of Cooking." Without a thought to tragic effects, the anonymous
author explains tube explosives, tripwire switches, ammonium nitrate
and Molotov cocktails, and even provides tips for passing through
airport security. No wonder Feinstein railed against this tome in a
But if her amendment were used against "The Terrorist's Handbook,"
would it pass constitutional muster? She claims to have carefully
written the amendment to respect free speech; it's directed only at
those who publish information with intent or belief that it will
actually be used for criminal purposes. But note the disclaimer
heading "The Terrorist's Handbook": "The processes and techniques
herein SHOULD NOT BE CARRIED OUT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES]] This is
merely for reading enjoyment, and not intended for actual use]]" This
may not quite ring true; nonetheless, those running that Web site are
not directly engaged in a conspiracy with killers--they're simply
publishing, leaving the audience to, uh, its own devices. When you
get down to it, the same goes for those who set up the CNN Web site,
whose pipe-bomb diagram is virtually identical to the one in "The
Terrorist's Handbook." Ditto for the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the
Government Printing Office, which both provide literally explosive
information. Because of this, civil libertarians believe that
Feinstein's amendment violates the Constitution. Even the Justice
Department seems to agree. "Bomb-making information is protected by
the First Amendment," a spokesperson told me.
Even if the courts upheld Feinstein, "The Terrorist's Handbook" would
still be available--the book's text is stored offshore. Because the
Internet passes through borders with the freedom of a feather on the
jet stream, though, it's just as easy to access this German Web site
as your next-door neighbor's home page. Without some global attempt
to censor the Internet, no laws can stop such forbidden information.
Such an international effort may be forthcoming. At last week's G-7
conference on terrorism, Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy
described his shock when his 11-year-old son showed him how to pull
down bomb information from cyberspace. The delegates vowed to devise
ways to stop this threat. That's a threat in itself. You can bet your
modem that if global censorship of the Net begins with bomb-making
information, it won't stop there.
Only an idiot would deny that "The Terrorist's Handbook" is a
frightening document. But if we are to embrace the Internet's
gifts--a bounty of information delivered instantly--we must also
accept that not all forms of electronic speech will be constructive.
We must also remember that the issue is not weapons, but speech. If
someone is sufficiently motivated to kill, does it really make a
difference if the fatal blueprints are acquired by mail order, in a
library or on the Web? The Internet didn't kill in Centennial
Park--that deed was committed by a murderer who built and detonated
the device. Here's the real problem: making a bomb is too easy.
Unfortunately, so is blaming the Internet.
COPYRIGHT Newsweek Inc. 1996