The U.S. war on terror may have inadvertently stripped as many as 70,000 people of their blogs, but those bloggers may get their work returned to them.
Blogetery.com, a small blogging platform based in Toronto, was abruptly shut down on July 9 by Burst.net, its Web host, after FBI agents alleged Blogetery was home to links that led to bomb-making tips and the names of Americans targeted for assassination by al-Qaeda. Joe Marr, Burst.net's chief technology officer, said Wednesday that the company is considering its options and there's a chance executives there could hand over a copy of most of the information found on Blogetery's server--it won't be returning anything created by al-Qaeda. That means the service's users could see their blogs again. What they won't see is Burst.net hosting Blogetery in the future, said Marr. That relationship is severed.
After the FBI requested information about Blogetery, Scranton, Pa.-based Burst.net cut off Internet access for the service. The decision to shut down Blogeter was made due to its history of violating Burst.net's terms of service, Marr said. He added that the blogging platform failed to respond fast enough to "abuse claims" on two of five occasions in the past. This led to a prior suspension, Marr said.
Burst.net considers an abuse to be material banned by the TOS, which can include pirated music or movie files, child pornography, as well as primers on how to blow people up.
All Burst.net clients are responsible for removing TOS violations within 24 hours of notification. If not, a customer risks a fine followed by a suspension. Those with multiple offenses can have their service terminated, according to Marr. He added that most customers who oversee similar operations as Blogetery's employ multiple people to monitor blogs and they typically respond within the allotted time. Alexander Yusupov, Blogetery's owner and sole employee, said in an interview with CNET that he "moderated the blogs on my server every day." But he also acknowledged in a message board post last week that he wasn't aware his site had been taken offline by Burst.net until two days later (So, how closely could he have been watching?). Yusupov, a 34-year-old Canadian citizen, has not been accused of any wrongdoing by the FBI.
The case underscores how difficult it is for authorities to protect free speech on the Web at the same time they fight terrorism. It also raises questions about the risks involved when trusting third-party service providers with data. From Burst.net's point of view, if Blogetery users don't get their data back, the person responsible is the owner.
Not so fast, says Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group for tech companies and Internet users. Opsahl notes that regardless of whether Yusupov was diligent enough in maintaining his service, it's unfair to penalize thousands of Blogetery users. They're innocent.
"It would be a shame and unfair to all the people using Blogetery for ordinary blogging services," Opsahl said.
Opsahl wants to know what part, if any, the FBI played in the shut down of Blogetery. Initially, Burst.net informed Yusupov and members of the media that it cut off Blogetery's service at the request of law enforcement. Marr says now that the employee who issued that statement erred and the FBI had nothing to do with it. What Opsahl worries about is the FBI's request for information to Burst.net.
In what are known as exigent letters or requests for voluntary information, the FBI has the authority under the Patriot Act to ask for reports from Internet service providers without a court order, but only when agents believe American lives are at risk.
The FBI, however, has an extensive history of misusing these requests, records show. The Justice Department Inspector General said in January that an audit of the FBI showed the agency had worked for years with ISPs to violate federal wiretapping laws. On numerous occasions the FBI asked ISPs for reports on U.S. citizens and journalists when no legitimate risk to human life existed. An FBI spokesman did not respond to an interview request.
"The FBI's use of exigent letters became so casual, routine and unsupervised that employees of...communication service providers told us that they, the company employees, sometimes generated the exigent letters for (FBI) personnel to sign and return," the inspector general reported.
Even if the FBI's relationship with Burst.net was nowhere near as cozy, Opsahl said a sentence the FBI includes in its written requests to ISPs in these situations could be perceived as a subtle prompt to shut down sites. The FBI tells ISPs: "You may wish on your own to terminate the links."
Meanwhile, Yusupov said he's preparing to defend himself. He said he's looking for a copyright and Internet attorney. He denies ever seeing any terrorist content on his platform.
So, how does he think Burst.net should have handled the situation?
"The normal practice is to suspend the server and contact the owner to resolve the situation," Yusupov said. "Not simply 'kill' the service without any prior warning or notification."