Everyone is talking about Joe Stack. He left a web site full of thoughts.
But right now I'm more interested in the fact that his web site became quickly unavailable, and I'm wondering why. Perhaps it's unimportant. This might just be a conspiracy theory. But I think it warrants at least a moment's thought.
Just before I posted this post, on Friday, February 19, 2010, around 5am EST, the website content was this:
But there was an intermediate time (February 18, 2010 at 2:56pm EST) when it said this*:
*There was also a signature line, but I didn't record it at the time. It was probably the same as above, and it probably doesn't matter, but I mention it anyway just because a major point here is about accuracy of the public record, and I want to do my part. I'm quite sure the main body of the text is correctly quoted. It was contemporaneously cross-checked by Bonnie Russell when I quoted it in a comment on her post Austin's Joe Stack blows same: Read the Wrong Book on IRS, and she updated her blog to say:
But here's a thing that's nagging at me: I could understand a family member making a request to take down the site because they thought it was a sensitive matter. I wouldn't like that, but I could understand it. A web site, however, is not a physical crime scene that is somehow going to get fingerprints all over it. And it's not like it was the guy's private machine where you were going to find personal data that might get disturbed. So why does the FBI want it offline?
I was going to write about that anyway. But when I went back to the site and found the new, friendlier message, with no hint of the FBI ever having been there, I find myself wondering why suddenly it's ok to see the message, just somewhere else.
You see, I'm all for having the FBI protect us. But it's not obvious how keeping us from knowing what this guy said protects us. It actually disturbs the state of things for them to take it offline. It risks error. It makes things less transparent.
We are a government of, by, and for The People. We oversee the government. The government does not oversee us. But increasingly, that is hard to do. In the name of protecting us, our freedoms are removed.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), in its document EFF Analysis of "Patriot II," Provisions of the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003 that Impact the Internet and Surveillance writes (highlighting and bold mine):
I want to emphasize that it might be that this act is not even in play at this time. But the corrosive effect of having laws like this is that one is forced to wonder anyway whether it might be, because this says that if the government were involved, we would not be allowed to know.
Yes, it's not a good thing what this guy did with the plane. I'll write more on that another time. But right now I want to know what the FBI's reason was for doing this kneejerk action to suppress his site. I'm not even worried about his freedom to speak, I'm worried about our freedom to hear.
And yes, I don't have it for sure that it was the FBI. The hosting company could have just been confused. That seems unlikely to me since the nature of the mention of the FBI didn't seem to me to be the intent of the writing. It was just an attempt to explain off an otherwise-confusing action and would surely have gotten the person authoring that text in trouble if it later turned out not to be the real reason. So I choose to believe it, but I note that this is a subjective assessment on my part.
What is not subjective is that the original site was moved, and apparently for a reason. I'm curious how that helped things—what it was intended to protect. Just in case it happens again.
And, yes, there's some risk that being able to read why he did this will inspire others. But we are an information society, and we've taken that risk. All manner of persuasive text is already freely allowed. This one item could not possibly make a difference.
Nor is it likely to be a secret signal to others that they should do some coordinated action. Once you admit possibilities like that, there can be no end to such paranoia. After all, if anyone was working with him, they probably got the signal when they turned on CNN and saw the plane had crashed. Or if he had wanted to send a message earlier, a simple email saying “It's time.” would have sufficed. It's just not plausible that he obfuscated what really didn't need to be obfuscated.
So let's hear some discussion about what the government action was in this case, not to protect us (which I appreciate) but to cover things up. That might even have been intended to protect us, but I would argue it's something we should discuss fully so we can tell whether this is the kind of thing we want our government doing, because I really don't think it is.
We probably won't get any more clear-cut case than this one around which to build a public dialog. It's our duty to oversee the actions of the government, after all. If not now, when?
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