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A Webmaster's 25th hour - Interview with Sherman Austin

by Declan McCullagh c/o nah Friday, Aug. 15, 2003 at 12:21 AM


A Webmaster's 25th hour By Declan McCullagh
Staff Writer, CNET
August 13, 2003, 4:00 AM PT

newsmakers Sherman Austin is looking forward to a year in federal prison with the kind of equanimity that most people reserve for a trip to the doctor's office.

The 20-year-old anarchist was charged with distributing information about Molotov cocktails and "Drano bombs" on his Web site, Under a 1997 federal law championed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., it is illegal to publish such instructions with the intent that readers commit "a federal crime of violence."

During the floor debate over the legislation, which the Senate approved unanimously, Feinstein said children "are getting instructions for making these explosives from the Internet...In February, in upstate New York, three 13-year-old boys were charged with plotting to set off a homemade bomb in their junior high school, using bomb-making plans which they had gotten off of the Internet...My amendment gives law enforcement another tool in the war against terrorism, to combat the flow of information that is used to teach terrorists and other criminals how to build bombs."

Austin appears to be the first person so far convicted under the controversial law, which some First Amendment scholars say may violate the right to freedom of expression. Earlier this year, Austin pleaded guilty, and last week a federal judge in Los Angeles sentenced him to one year in prison.

CNET interviewed Austin by telephone from a guest house where he is staying in Long Beach, Calif.

Q: When do you enter prison? A: Basically, I wait until Sept. 3, I go to the downtown Los Angeles federal building and I surrender myself. I might go to the Lompoc federal prison. It has three different facilities: a camp, which is low-security; a medium-security unit; and a high-security unit. I'm told that sometimes, they'll screw with you. If they want to screw with me, they'll keep me at a federal jail.

What's going to happen to your Web site? Right now, I'm trying to get my things together. I'm trying to make sure that will stay up. It's also a direct action network. I want to make sure that continues to exist.

How are you feeling with just a few weeks of liberty left? I'm in pretty good shape. Psychologically, I'm staying focused, not letting myself get scared or anything like that.

You sound remarkably calm. I'm definitely pissed off. The reason I'm calm is that I've gotten used to it. I've become more passive toward it. I'm encouraged to be less scared about what's going on. I've gotten used to the fact that they'll do whatever they want to do to set an example, set a precedent.

What kind of legal fees do you have? I have a public defender. I have a ,000 fine. We're trying to have benefit shows to raise money and ask for donations. So far, we've raised about ,000.

There's at least one mirror of your site run by Dave Touretzky, a faculty member in the computer science department of Carnegie Mellon University. But he hasn't been prosecuted by the government. Neither have people selling how-to books like "Silent Death."

The fact that bomb-making information is readily available on the Internet doesn't concern the feds. If someone were to use a bomb to do something illegal, there's plenty of information out there, including in libraries. The only reason they went after my site is because it was getting more popular and was promoting autonomous organizing. It was promoting not just that, but autonomous thinking--people going out in their local communities and taking the initiative. That started happening. wasn't just a Web site but was developing into a direct action network.

Do you know of anyone else who's faced similar charges? I don't know anyone else who was charged under this law. My lawyer said he's never handled any case like this--that this is the craziest case he's ever dealt with.

So why do you believe the government singled you out and ignored the same bomb-making information on other Web sites? Apparently, distributing that information isn't illegal. Having the intent to use it in a crime of violence is. That's the iffy part there. There are tons and tons of Web sites out there that have information about how to build bombs and use explosives. Even assassinations and credit card fraud. How do they prove intent? It's nothing more than thought crime.

Why did you agree to a plea bargain instead of going to trial? I wasn't going to risk 20 years in prison. At first, I wanted to go to trial. But when I found out the terrorism enhancement (from the USA Patriot Act) applied to my case, I changed my mind. If I knew it was going to be a year in jail, I probably would have taken it to trial.

You didn't know how long you'd serve? I knew that the sentencing range was 6 to 12 months, based on what the prosecutors recommended and what the U.S. probation officer recommended. I thought that's what I'd be sentenced to. But the judge saw it differently.

Have you ever been in trouble with the law before? I came to videotape a demonstration on May 1, 2001. I was there when, unexpectedly, police started a brutal attack. I was shot twice.

With rubber bullets? With a 12-gauge shotgun shooting plastic shells. I had penetrating wounds in my calves. I was in the hospital for nine hours. I still have one in my leg. After that I was taken to jail and spent three nights there.

Is that what radicalized you? I was already an activist. That incident motivated me even more. It inspired me to take it to much greater levels.

You say you're an anarchist. So you advocate violence? I don't really use the terms violence and nonviolence...I wouldn't say my site promotes violence. I'd say my site promotes self-defense. Everyone agrees that if you're being attacked, you have the right to defend yourself.

You've bragged to reporters that you've hacked into computer systems, defaced Web sites, launched denial-of-service attacks and so on. While you weren't charged with those offenses, the government's affidavit mentions those claims. Did you do it? They just put a bunch of crazy stuff in there to make the search warrant look pretty. There were a lot of allegations about that, like using credit cards and stolen stereos. None of it was ever proven. They never provided any evidence.

After you get out, your probation conditions place restrictions on you using computers. Are you going to try to keep running after your prison term is up? I'm going to try to. Apparently, one of the conditions of the probation is that I can't associate myself with anyone who espouses violence as a way of accomplishing political change--like an anarchist organization or a socialist or communist or anyone involved in a progressive organization. If they're going to say I'm not allowed to associate with someone, I'd like to see them come out and prove it. I'd like to fight it. I don't know if I myself will run But I'd like to keep the site up and running.

The FBI seized your computers and has not returned them. Did you have any encrypted files or e-mail messages on them? I don't think I had any encrypted data on my computers. I didn't encrypt my Web site, since it was public information, and I didn't have anything to hide. I was using PGP a little to send e-mail. I'm using it now.

Do you have any regrets? I don't have any regrets for running the Web site. When I first started the site, my first objective was to make it a big site, a forum. I have a huge support base behind me. Not just my voice has been heard but others have been heard. I don't regret running the site. Despite what's been happening, better things will come out of it.

The federal sentencing guidelines generally give you a shorter prison term for accepting responsibility for your actions. Have you? I'm angry. I don't have any feelings of accepting responsibility. What do I have to accept responsibility for? It seems like they only go after political dissidents, beating people down, stopping them, harassing them. Where's the responsibility there? They talk about accepting responsibility--and where are the people at Enron who haven't even had a slap on the wrist? Where's the responsibility there?

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what a shame stu Friday, Dec. 12, 2003 at 11:52 AM

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