FBI forces ISP to close Web site

Wednesday, November 24, 1999

The FBI ordered...
The FBI ordered an Internet service provider to shut down a Web site that featured this grainy video footage.
The U.S. government ordered a private Web site to taken off line without a hearing, court order or other legal authority, according to published reports today.

The target of the federal action was a six-minute grainy video of Times Square, accompanied by audio narration that suggested the government was preparing for possible paramilitary action on New Year's Eve.

The video's producer, Mike Zieper, said FBI agents went to his home on Nov. 18 at night to demand he remove his video from the Internet.

“'We know that you have this Web site and that it has been getting a lot of activity. And we want to know how we can get people to stop seeing it,' ” was how Zieper recalled the FBI agents' approach, in an interview published today by the Village Voice.

“The implication was obvious that I would face a subpoena or arrest if I didn't [comply],” he said. “I was thinking, am I a criminal? I started to imagine those orange jumpsuits and spending time in jail.”

But Zieper, who uses the name Mike Z in his work, refused to comply, telling the Voice he immediately stored his computers and contacted lawyers. So on Nov. 19, the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office contacted Zieper's online host, BECamation, and demanded that the site be removed. Faced with a threat of closing his entire business, Mark Wieger, president of BECamation, took Zieper's site off line.

“I had no choice but to pull the site down completely or I would have lost my business,” Wieger told the Voice.

By this morning, the video had been reposted at a mirror site. As word of the banned video spread by e-mail and through news groups, the mirror site became so crowded with traffic early today that users found it difficult to access for a time.

Many who have seen the video described it as innocuous and obviously a work of fiction.

Wieger did not respond to telephone or e-mail messages this morning.

“This was a clear overreaction by the FBI and the ISP that seems more out of COINTELPRO” — a clandestine FBI program against anti-war protests — “and the 1970s than the end of the century,” David Banisar, an attorney in the Washington area specializing in computer and communications law, said. “This case is a call for placing more limits on government agencies' power to interfere with free speech on the Internet.”

“I've never heard of anything like this involving the FBI,” said Ann Beeson of the American Civil Liberties Union in an interview with theVoice. “Even though the ISP may not have been told, 'You must take it down,' there are still serious constitutional problems.”

“The Supreme Court made clear in the Communications Decency Act case that Congress could not enact a law to censor the Net,” Banisar said. “It should be equally clear that the FBI cannot use its powers to bully Internet service providers to do the same thing.”