New efforts to keep bomb recipes off Web
Internet executives, bomb victims, and Congress face challenge of
NEW YORK — An animated fuse sparks and burns down to a cartoon black-ball bomb. When they touch, a red-and-yellow POW! explodes on the screen.
The flashy icon animates a Web site that gives detailed instructions on how to make a real bomb. A list of more than 100 links is centered down the screen, showing how to build fertilizer bombs, mailbox bombs, letter bombs, firebombs, and dozens more. One of the links on the Web page asks, "Do ya hate school?" It tells how to call in a bomb threat. Another instructs on the "arts of lockpicking."
There are literally thousands of Web sites like this on the Internet. As people remain stunned by the events in Littleton, Colo., and the bomb threats across the United States that have followed, some groups are again calling for efforts to curtail access to bombmaking sites.
Even companies that host these Web pages are starting to rethink the kind of information they will allow. Congress, too, is debating legislation that would make it a crime to teach over the Internet how to make or use a bomb.
"In 15 minutes of research on the Web, I was able to find at least 10 sites that could give a person with little technical sophistication the information on how to commit mass murder," says Gary Wright, a computer professional who was injured by a mailbomb sent by Ted Kaczynski, who was later convicted as the Unabomber.
The computer-savvy Eric Harris apparently gleaned information from Web sites to construct the bombs that police say he and Dylan Klebold used to terrorize Columbine High School in Littleton.
Since 1993, there have been almost 14,000 bombings or attempted bombings in the US, and more than one-third of them have been attributed to juveniles, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).
Though just a small number of these bombings have been linked to information gathered over the Internet, the overlap has increased significantly in the past few years.
Last week Mr. Wright met with others in New York to support an appeal by the Center for the Community Interest (CCI), exhorting Internet companies to rid cyberspace of bombmaking Web sites. The group included Marsha Kight, a woman who lost her daughter in the Oklahoma bombing, and David Kaczynski, the brother of Ted Kaczynski.
"What we're calling on them to do is to take technologically simple, proactive steps to search their own hosted Web sites for this kind of material," says Dennis Saffran, executive director of CCI. He suggests companies "could run a continuous automated search-engine scan, to look for red-flag keywords that would suggest explicit bombmaking."
One reason Mr. Saffran and his organization are appealing directly to Internet companies, rather than to Congress, is to avoid the First Amendment problems involved in legislating and restricting Internet content.
Last week the Senate approved an amendment to the massive juvenile-crime bill that would punish anyone who teaches bombmaking techniques with the "knowledge or intent that the information will be used to commit a federal crime."
The amendment, sponsored by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah and Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, does not make it illegal to simply provide the information, however. Many of these bombmaking sites on the Internet post warnings, and make the disclaimer that the sites are for informational purposes only.
Though Saffran says he finds these First Amendment issues "dubious," in a letter to Internet executives he argues that no one has a constitutional right to use private property to facilitate terrorism.
"You have the right," he writes, "and ... the moral obligation to stop them from doing so."
MANY companies claim to be already making efforts to do this. The site with the animated sparking bomb was located on the Angelfire.com network, a network of personal home pages owned by Lycos Inc. "That kind of material is strictly prohibited on our Web pages," says Brian Payea, spokesman for Lycos.
Seven million people are members of either Angelfire or another Lycos-owned Web community called Tripod.com. Employees monitor the sites, and an automated system does search for certain tell-tale key words, Mr. Payea says.
Still, it is not so technologically simple, he adds. "If you put in key words like 'bomb' and 'kill,' you would come across some historical sites that give information about Hiroshima.... So we can't just automatically remove sites; we have to look at them first."
Payea explains that efforts are under way "to better identify these kinds of sites, and remove them." He would not reveal the name of the party that launched the bombmaking site found on the Angelfire network.
At this time last year, information that explained how to mix chemicals, even if it were to make a bomb, would not have been prohibited, Payea says.
Like the proposed federal legislation, the company's policy was to remove only messages that included threats or calls to commit illegal acts. "But with the current national crisis, we've begun to shut down sites that include information on bombmaking."
Both Saffran and Payea agree that Internet domains should do more to monitor their sites.
"But there is a strong sense of community in our networks," Payea says, "and to some to degree they are already self-policing. Like any other community, people would want to be a part of something that is maintained in a wholesome, orderly way."
A day after being informed of the site with the sparking cartoon bomb, Angelfire.com blocked access to it.