Lawrence Davidson: Web Warfare Comes to America


Richard Moore

Date: Mon, 23 Sep 2002 09:58:21 -0600
From: "GlobalCirclenet" <•••@••.•••>
To: •••@••.•••
Subject: Web Warfare Comes to America

September 23, 2002

Web Warfare Comes to America
by Lawrence Davidson

A new front in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been opened in the 
United States. This has not been done by Islamic fundamentalists, or 
radical Palestinians. It has been done by American and Israeli computer 
hackers. Action on this new front has taken the form of identity theft, 
harassment, incitement to harassment, defamation of character, and 
malicious misrepresentation through the misuse and misappropriation of 
computer e-mail facilities and lists. In the process, the reliability of 
the web based system of communication has been undercut, the integrity 
of some very prestigious universities have been called into question, 
and the judgment of law enforcement authorities made to look tainted 
with bias. Let me give a number of examples.

In early July a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania by the 
name of Marc Dworkin, using a university e-mail account, sent a message 
to recipients of his e-mail lists directing them to harass Professor 
Mona Baker at England's University of Manchester Institute for Science 
and Technology. His exact words, after giving Professor Baker's e-mail 
address and telephone number, were "harrass (sic) the motherfucker." 
This was Mr. Dworkin's way of expressing his disagreement with Professor 
Baker over her support of the boycott of Israel. Soon Professor Baker 
was receiving hundreds of obscene and threatening communications. When 
the University of Pennsylvania's Vice President for Information Systems 
and Computing, Ms Robin Beck, was informed of this incident her reply to 
Baker was that a "careful assessment based on what we currently know, 
does not reveal either a violation of University policy, nor a violation 
of law." When it was pointed out to University of Pennsylvania officials 
that Dworkin's actions had indeed violated Penn's policies on 
"Acceptable Use of Electronic Resources" and "Guidelines on Open 
Expression" (his behavior is also a possible violation of the 
Pennsylvania law on "harassment and stalking by communication or 
address") they still refused to take any action. Why should the 
University of Pennsylvania refuse to move against someone using their 
e-mail accounts in a fashion that undermines its educational purpose, 
violates its own policies, and possibly constitutes criminal behavior?

In late August Professor Shahid Alam at Northeastern University in 
Boston, Massachusetts wrote a piece in CounterPunch, later reprinted at 
Al-Ahram Weekly On Line, in which he made a case for the boycott of 
Israeli academia as one example of a non-violent alternative to the 
increasingly desperate violent resistance of the Palestinians. In the 
process he explained the conditions of Israeli occupation that had 
resulted in the various forms of violent Palestinian struggle, including 
suicide bombings. The piece was reconstructed and misrepresented in the 
Jerusalem Post to make it appear that Alam "justified terror attacks 
against Israelis." On September 4th the Boston Herald, apparently not 
checking the accuracy of the Jerusalem Post report, announced "Professor 
Shocks Northeastern with Defense of Suicide Bombers." Almost immediately 
Professor Alam began receiving a large number of harassing e-mails. In 
addition, in an act of identity theft, e-mails misrepresenting his 
position were forged and sent out under Alam's name. Northeastern 
University's response to the Boston Herald report was to "distance" 
itself from Alam. The professor's remarks were his alone and the 
University did not "condone or officially recognize them." The 
impression was left that Northeastern assumed the Herald piece accurate. 
Why should Northeastern University react in such a timid fashion to an 
incorrect report that threatened the reputation of one of their own 
faculty members?

Throughout July and August, numerous organizations and individuals who 
support the Palestinian cause, oppose war in the Middle East, support 
human rights, and are just generally critical of Israel, were harassed 
and interfered with. Among the victims was Monica Terazi, Director of 
the New York office of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee 
(ADC). She was harassed and her identity stolen by hackers with the 
result that, for a time, Yahoo Groups took her account off line. When 
she reported this assault to the FBI, their response was that no law had 
been broken: no money stolen, no computers physically damaged, public 
safety had not been endangered. The entire hacker operation, according 
to the FBI, was simply an exercise protected by the First Amendment. Why 
should the FBI take such a dismissive position on activities which, in 
many states of the Union, are now recognized as a form of, to quote the 
Pennsylvania statute, "harassment and stalking by communication?"

Ultimately, it was not the law enforcement agencies or university 
administrators that investigated the hackers who had harassed, abused, 
and misrepresented so many people over the summer months. It was private 
individuals such as Professor Bassam Shehadeh of Iowa State University. 
He managed to track down some of the sources of abuse to sites in Israel 
and its West Bank colonies. The Israelis had committed their acts of 
harassment by accessing an ISP called on the West Bank. When 
the Israeli army went about systematically destroying the electronic 
communications facilities on the West Bank they spared Palnet. To what 
end? Well, the result has been its misappropriation in the manner 
described here.

This form of harassment via electronic communications is on-going. It is 
being used to intimidate and emotionally punish American and British 
academics, as well as many others, who are critical of Israel and its 
policies. Yet nothing of significance is being done about it by 
authorities capable of curbing such behavior. For all intents and 
purposes, the inaction of academic and law enforcement authorities has 
created legal space for what are ordinarily illegal acts: harassment, 
incitement to harassment, identity theft, and malicious 
misrepresentation. At least this seems to be so when these assaults are 
directed against those critical of positions favored by influential and 
powerful interest groups. One can ask the question--would the FBI or the 
administrators at the University of Pennsylvania or Northeastern 
University have taken the positions they now do, if such organized and 
extensive harassment and identity theft had been directed against 
American Zionists by supporters of the Palestinians?

The implications of this episode of "web warfare" goes beyond the 
present situation. The hands off position taken by the FBI and 
university authorities sets a precedent for the future. While critics of 
Israel are now the main targets of web based harassment and 
misrepresentation, there is no reason why the circle of victims cannot 
become much larger. After all it is a "virtual world" now and thus it is 
impossible to keep such behavior "local." It seems we have found a new 
technological way of assaulting each other on a worldwide basis. It was 
Ortega Y Gasset who once observed that "hatred is a feeling which leads 
to the extinction of values." The present campaign of intimidation is 
certainly hate filled and it is likely that others who hate will learn 
of these techniques and use them. Those who can stop this behavior now, 
but have chosen not to, ought to think again before the future of 
communications becomes "extinct of values."

Lawrence Davidson is a professor of history at West Chester University 
in Pennsylvania.

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