Caught in a Web of His Own Design
The two teenage friends, one in Plantation, Florida, and one in a suburb of New York City, were watching TV and conversing with each other via a computer chat room when they saw the first horrifying pictures of the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado. A cable news channel soon reported that one of the suspected killers, Eric Harris, had an Internet Website that espoused violent and racist views, and the program listed that Web address. They immediately looked it up.
The two young men -- who asked New Times to publish only their first names, Travis and Chuck -- are computer enthusiasts who share a passionate commitment to free expression and personal privacy on the Internet. Figuring that law-enforcement authorities would quickly shut down Harris' site, they made a spur-of-the-moment decision to copy the content and publish it on their own fledgling Website, d0x.com, which they had just set up to discuss computer security issues. All it took was a few keystrokes to download the HTML file and copy it to their Web page -- almost the same simple operation nonexpert users perform every day when they save a Web page to their computers. This common practice is called mirroring.
"I don't know what our goal was," says Travis, a 17-year-old South Plantation High School junior who earns money designing Websites for media companies. "Harris was a disturbed child. But I don't agree with censorship of the Internet. I don't think the Internet influences people. It's completely up to users what they want to see, whether it's how to fix your car or how to make a bomb."
But he and Chuck never imagined the firestorm they would ignite by putting their libertarian principles into practice. Their action brought cops and feds swarming over South Plantation High and made them the latest hostages in the running battle over Internet freedom of expression. That battle intensified last month as many politicians and pundits blamed the Internet for the Littleton massacre and other recent school shootings. Travis and Chuck don't see it that way.
The two young men had a brief, heady run as Internet superstars. On Tuesday afternoon they posted Eric Harris' instructions on how to build pipe bombs filled with shrapnel ("the easiest and deadliest ways to kill a group of people"). They also put up Harris' drawing of a devil holding a pipe bomb and standing on a pile of skulls, and the apocalyptic lyrics of a song by the cult German-American rock band KMFDM ("Chaos-panic, no resistance, detonations in a distance").
The title they put at the top of the site, which Chuck says was a "joke," was "National Bring Your Gun to School Day." That was followed by a line urging support for the Trench Coat Mafia, the violence-spouting teenage clique to which the two Littleton killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, belonged.
Soon after Travis and Chuck copied Harris' site on Tuesday, the FBI, as expected, shut it down. That made d0x.com the only place to see the young killer's bizarre, hate-filled message. To Travis' and Chuck's surprise, their Website counter tallied more than one million visits to d0x.com by people wanting to see what Harris, who killed himself after shooting up the school, had to say.
But on Wednesday their Internet service provider, Communitech.net of St. Joseph, Missouri, tried to shut them down, claiming they were "promoting illegal activities" by encouraging guns in schools. They acknowledged that the title line could be misinterpreted, so they removed it and added a disclaimer that d0x.com was not tied to the Trench Coat Mafia or the Littleton incident in any way. At the same time, they inserted a diatribe against Communitech for trying to censor their site and encouraged others to mirror the content on other sites.
"We at d0x are dedicated to bringing you all the facts, especially those that would be repressed by other sources," they wrote. "YOU have the RIGHT to know what the Trenchcoat Mafia was thinking... FREE SPEECH, it's up to you."
On Thursday night Communitech.net pulled the plug on d0x.com for good. But as the two partners hoped, copies of their site popped up at many other Web locations, including one that translated the material into Japanese.
The next day, Travis was sitting at home playing hooky when he heard a knock on the door. He opened up to find a Plantation police officer and an FBI agent, who wanted to ask him some questions. At first he thought the visit was a result of his having skipped school. But the officers said they had gotten an anonymous tip that he and his friends had published a Website suggesting ties to the Littleton shootings and the Trench Coat Mafia. They probed his views on racism and violence.
"They were doing a profile on me to see if I was a likely suspect for a school shooting in the near future," Travis told New Times. "I told them I had never even heard of the Trench Coat Mafia before." He admitted responsibility for the Website but said he did not condone Harris' violent message or behavior. "I don't support fascism. I'm not a Nazi," he told the cops. He mirrored the site, he said, simply because he felt everyone had a right to see the material.
But back at South Plantation High, police, school security staff, and administrators were making frantic efforts to ensure that d0x.com wasn't a warning of another Littleton-type attack. They asked numerous students whether they were involved with the Website or the Trench Coat Mafia, including Travis' fellow computer enthusiasts and students who dress in black and call themselves Goths. But the FBI quickly dropped its investigation. Mike Fabregas, spokesman for the FBI's Miami division, says it was within Travis' First Amendment rights to post his Website, even if it was "offensive and in poor taste."
Broward County School Board security officials, however, continue to search for Travis' supposed accomplices. No disciplinary action has been taken so far, though school principal Doug Parrish says that it is still possible, depending on what investigators find. There is no evidence that Travis posted the Harris material using a school computer, which would be grounds for disciplinary action.
Travis had no record of behavior problems. "Some of this was self-aggrandizing adolescent behavior," Parrish says, "But it does seem to have been an Internet freedom issue for him."
While the investigation was going on, Chuck, a 19-year-old community college student who lives north of New York City and works as a computer repairman, agonized. Though he wanted to stay clear of trouble, he didn't want Travis and other students to continue to be hassled while authorities hunted for an accomplice. So he phoned the FBI, Plantation police, and Parrish, he says, to let them know he was the guy they were looking for. A Plantation police detective called back and told him there was no evidence he did anything wrong, but the school investigation was continuing.
"I'll try to get Travis out of this if I can," he says. "I'm not afraid of what the FBI might do, because we didn't do anything wrong." Still, he told his mother not to be surprised if the FBI comes calling. "She looked at me funny, but I didn't want to answer her questions."
School officials have no legal leg to stand on in trying to prevent such Web postings from students' home computers. "Unless they made specific threats against particular people, what these two students did is totally within their First Amendment rights," says Ann Beeson, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in New York City.
Bennett Haselton, a Vanderbilt University graduate student who heads an Internet freedom group called Peacefire.org, says Internet users often mirror Websites that have been shut down by authorities. They do this, even when they strongly disagree with the content, to protest what they see as censorship. "People want to be able to form their own opinion about whether the Internet caused the Littleton tragedy," Haselton argues, "and to do that they need access to Harris' Web page."
Many in the mainstream news media, however, were squeamish about providing direct access to or detailed information about the site, which is precisely why Travis and Chuck say their effort was essential. Travis says KUSA-TV News in Denver asked for his permission to copy d0x.com for reporting purposes. But KUSA only aired a general description of the site. KUSA news director Patti Dennis says she didn't feel comfortable posting the Harris material on the station's Website or telling viewers how to access it. "That's not our job. Anyone who wants to see it should go through the same research process we did."
Harris' words and drawings are still available as of press time at various Web locations, such as tcm.nuclearbomb.com. Travis and Chuck want nothing more to do with that. But they do want to get d0x.com back on the Web to discuss computer security, their original aim. Travis is sure that the feds will monitor everything he posts for some time.
He is wrestling with whether to go back to South Plantation High, where rumors and fear-mongering about the incident are still widespread. He worries about how students and teachers will treat him if he returns. He's considering switching schools or withdrawing entirely and taking GED classes. "Hopefully, my friends will understand and be all right. But think about all those teachers who've heard people say, 'Watch out for him, he might pull out a gun and kill you.' I feel bad for them. If I were them, I'd be worried, too."
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