It's a story that sounds like an Indiana Jones movie - there are neo-Nazis, religious fundamentalists, vigilantes, mystery saboteurs, a cast of thousands and the world for a stage. But this is the '90s, not the '30s, and the war is waged with computers instead of roundhouse rights. The casualty is usually free speech, on the platform on which free speech is most widely championed - the Internet.
Chip Berlet has been tracking and reporting on the activities of right-wing groups in cyberspace since 1984, currently for Political Research Associates (PRA) out of Cambridge, Mass. He's accustomed to some occupational hazards - he's been sued unsuccessfully by Lyndon LaRouche twice and suffers the occasional electronic threat of bodily harm - but until last month, no one had shut him up.
An email bomb flooded the electronic mailboxes of subscribers to a PRA-sponsored mail list right-wing propaganda and obscenity-laced diatribes, hundreds of messages in every mailbox. Many subscribers, in particular those who are charged per message received, quit the list. It took Berlet three days to sort out the mess. This mail list was closed down, then reopened with better security and a moderator.
What happened? Someone managed to subscribe Berlet's list to all of the mail from another list, CAJI, primarily for right-wing conspiracy theorists. The "bomb" went off while Berlet was taking a couple of days away from the 'Net to write a paper on the right wing online for a group called the Media and Democracy Congress.
"Irony, no?" he commented last week in an email exchange. Irony yes; humor no.
"I suppose I am particularly offended because I have consistently argued against net censorship and spamming, and encouraged serious debate," he said. "I don't find anything vaguely humorous (about it) and I'm easy with a laugh. It was just mean and nasty crap from a cowardly bully."
Skipp Porteous is another tracker of things right-wing, for the Institute for First Amendment Studies Inc. (IFAS) in Great Barrington, Mass. The group's page on the World Wide Web features a right-between-the-eyes look at Pat Buchanan on the stump and various articles about militia groups and religious fundamentalism.
Last month, briefly, it featured a swastika. Someone hacked into BerkshireNet, IFAS's Internet provider, and gained system administrator privileges, enabling him to redecorate a bit. The hacker then mailed racist and anti-semitic messages out onto the Internet using the system administrator's account, according to Porteous. IFAS lost "a couple of weeks worth of email, updates to our web site and other data," he said.
There were a spate of such incidents in the last few weeks; an attempt was made to flood the White House server after President Clinton signed the Communications Decency Act, universally unpopular in cyberspace. Phillip Elmer DeWitt, senior technology editor for Time, was apparently mail bombed as well, and was leaving cryptic messages to a "Mr. Spam" in the Usenet discussion newsgroup alt.media.internet.coverage in an effort to find out why. But hacker stunts have plagued and/or amused the Internet community for as long as there has been one. No one is suggesting, at this point, that the malice is organized.
But a line may have been crossed by the right-wing groups and their antagonists. An uneasy truce has broken down, and there is recognition that a state of electronic guerrilla war exists.
Because the right wing is taking its lumps, too.
"Electronic sabotage ... has intensified," says Ernst Zundel at the "Zundelsite," an extensive Internet location infamous for its no-holds-barred approach to denying that Jews were targeted for extermination by Germany during World War II. Efforts to ostracize or ban the material on the Internet have been predictably ineffectual. When Germany made the Santa Cruz, Calif. site off-limits, at least a dozen "mirrors" of it were set up by free speech adherents around the world, including some at major universities.
Zundel claims he has received one actual mail bomb (of the Unabomber, not the electronic variety.) And he says he has been victimized by electronic vandals in much the same ways as Berlet and Porteous have. Hackers have crashed his accounts, forged his email address and flooded his mailbox. At least three other "patriotic" groups have been likewised victimized, according to Zundel.
It seems unlikely that an embattled Zundel has resorted to tit-for-tat in the mail bomb wars any more than Porteous or Berlet would, though Zundel's impassioned victimhood could certainly sway technologically adept supporters to retaliate. It is reasonable to accept that he is under siege, as he says. The "Zundelsite" contains page after page of material guaranteed to infuriate any Jew, or any honest student of history, for that matter.
However, his commitment to unfettered speech on the Internet is difficult to question. His pages are even linked to those of Nizkor, perhaps the most complete Holocaust information center on the World Wide Web.
But he sounds a call to arms: "If there are any patriotic Internet experts out there who can help us defend ourselves with technical or legal remedies, please call," Zundel exhorts on the "Welcome" message on his home page. "We can sure use your help!"
The war, if war it is, frustrates Berlet, an Internet veteran.
"The Zundel site is clearly part of the Holocaust denial movement, no matter what (he) claims," Berlet said. "...but attacking such sites only gives them the image of the underdog. They are better answered by sites such as the Nizkor project, which expose the lies, the twisting of facts, the uses of the fallacies of debate and other demagogic tricks, the refusal to face a fair argument. These revelations are far more damaging than the sophomoric vandalism of the Zundel site."
So the opposing camps have one common ideal - elements in both are committed to free speech for the other, and the electronic guerrilla war should be stopped. Neither side, however, has the means to stop what are essentially ideologically motivated individual acts of harassment and vandalism. Despite the 1st Amendment issues involved, the government is unlikely to play any role in the war while it is off defending the constitutionality of free speech restrictions embodied in the Communications Decency Act.
Berlet would like to see criminal penalties for electronic guerrillas.
"CyberVandalism should be treated as a crime when the time and expense to clean up the mess exceeds, say, $200 in lost hours and message/online expenses," he says emphatically. "If it is over $1,000 it should be a felony.
"People caught doing this need to be punished. Nothing more or less than regular laws concerning vandalism. No panics, equal treatment."
Ironically, Berlet says he has had civil relationships with right-wingers over the years and some subscribe to the mail list that was attacked. He characterized the "war" as not so much Left vs. Right as it is a sign that civility on the Internet may become scarce as its accessibilty increases.
"There have been, and still are, several rightwingers, including some that I have written articles critical of, on the list. From time to time, some of them have started to post material that we felt was not in keeping with the purpose of the list. We have asked them to stop, and they have.
"Some of those persons are still lurkers on the list, and we make no attempt to toss them off. So this isn't a left v. right issue, this is a person who does not respect net citizenship and the rules of civility required to make the Internet really work as a democratic medium."