Amid the news that two terrorism suspects were nailed by the FBI this week, PATRIOT Act co-sponsor Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) knew immediately what was to blame: a bomb-building guide from the 1970s and Al Qaeda’s half-assed version of Us Weekly.
Feinstein, who happens to be vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, wasted no time rushing a dangerous and stupid hot take into the situation. In an official statement on her website, she called for mass censorship of two publications from the alleged terrorists’ reading list. One was William Powell’s 1971 bomb-building guide The Anarchist Cookbook, the other Al Qaeda recruitment magazine Inspire:
“I am particularly struck that the alleged bombers made use of online bombmaking guides like the Anarchist Cookbook and Inspire Magazine. These documents are not, in my view, protected by the First Amendment and should be removed from the Internet.“
I feel that, unlike some of her (mainly Republican) colleagues, Feinstein’s heart is essentially in the right place. She wants to keep Americans safe from the existential threat of terrorism and doesn’t want more people pulled out of burning wreckage in body bags. Unfortunately, that’s about as much credit as I’m willing to give her for this wildly irresponsible call for censorship, which is terrible for several reasons:
1. It would backfire.
When you call for policy decisions that involve the future of the entire internet, it might help to crack your e-book a little and read up on the thing. First of all, pretty much everyone who uses the web regularly has heard of the Streisand Effect, named after the actress’ inability to control the viral spread of photos of her house. Thanks to the fundamentally difficult-to-control ways in which information spreads over digital networks, trying to suppress or censor information on something often just results in widespread and increased interest in the subject.
In other words, were Feinstein to actually pass whatever legislation is necessary to protect our nation from the threat of 1970s anti-Vietnam propaganda, then the very next day it’s virtually guaranteed that the front page of Reddit, major news media sites and social media will be littered with links to The Anarchist Cookbook. At best, it would be terribly embarrassing for Feinstein.
2. It’s technically impossible.
While the NSA is doing its damnedest to create this capability in the future, the fact stands that the government is neither capable of monitoring the internet for the spread of banned materials in any systemic way. Nor does it have the enforcement mechanisms to track down and erase all (or even a slim percentage) of the currently extent copies of The Anarchist Cookbook on all the hard drives of the world.
Permanently eliminating a file that has, at the very least, tens of thousands of permutations and is stored away in tens of millions of places across the globe is not as simple as putting it in the recycle bin. How is Feinstein planning on eliminating all the copies hosted in other countries? Is she going to issue takedown notices to thousands of U.S. websites? Even Google’s recent actions to prevent its services from being used to locate child porn was met with a collective “meh” by experts who said it would do little to protect victims. But since most people don’t even know what The Anarchist Cookbook is, and the vast majority of people who do probably disagree with Feinstein, the feds wouldn’t be able to rely upon the cooperation of big corporations or reports from concerned citizens to track copies of it down for them.
3. It would give the government unprecedented power to crack down on the internet and it’s unconstitutional.
We don’t need David Cameron-style porn filters to keep people from stumbling across stuff people of a certain political pedigree find distasteful. And we certainly don’t need Feinstein’s imaginary PATRIOT Act for the internet.
I’m not a fan of slippery slope arguments, but the instant that the federal government begins monitoring the web for copies of an anti-war pamphlet from the 70s is the second that we’ll have to worry about mission creep. In an attempt to correct for the technical inadequacies of any approach calling for mass censorship of the internet, the feds would probably take to looking for it using sloppy, sweeping filters that accidentally block related content. It’s already happened in the UK.
Note how Feinstein says that in her opinion, The Anarchist Cookbook is not protected by the First Amendment. Has Feinstein ever used Amazon? Been to a Barnes and Noble? Might be news to them. Or the courts, which generally protect even the most vile speech that isn’t deliberate incitement.
Democrats who arbitrarily call for censorship of things they don’t like are acting no better than Republicans screaming about gay porn. Feinstein’s demand that the book be censored is in clear conflict with the spirit of the First Amendment.
4. It won’t keep anyone safer.
For one, it’s not at all clear that The Anarchist Cookbook inspired the two women arrested to become the United States’ newest Al Qaeda franchise. In fact, it looks an awful lot like the Cookbook was deliberately given to them by the FBI in order to advance something that pretty much looks like an entrapment operation.
But Feinstein doesn’t appear to understand that the Cookbook was compiled entirely from publicly accessible materials in libraries, or that it’s actually not even a very useful resource for the aspiring bomb-builder.Many of the “recipes” in Powell’s book are incomplete, obsolete, dangerous or non-functional, and much deadlier materials like the U.S. Army’s own field manual for constructing improvised weaponry are commonly available online. Aspiring bombers don’t need any specific publications. Nor does Feinstein bother to think that the vast, vast majority of people viewing bomb-making guides on the internet are probably just average bored people with a slightly macabre interest in How Stuff Works.