Webmaster Released From Prison

Ed Palomar
LOS ANGELES – Webmaster Sherman Austin has been released from prison near Tucson, Ariz., where he served almost a year behind bars for hosting a left wing website that included some content that Austin did not write and was posted by someone else – on how to make bombs.

The case, plus the draconian sentence and parole terms imposed on Austin, has far-reaching implications for adult webmasters.

According to leftist magazine CounterPunch, on Jan. 24, 2002, the FBI and Secret Service surrounded Austin’s apartment in Sherman Oaks, Calif. Authorities seized his computer equipment, protest signs, political books, and more.

CounterPunch states that the warrant was supported by an FBI affidavit that contained two suspected charges – [1] distribution of explosives information with the intent that the information be used for, or in furtherance of, an activity that constitutes a Federal crime of violence, and [2] alleged illegal computer activity that included defacement of web pages.

Austin was arrested Feb. 2, 2002, in New York City at a protest against the World Economic Forum.

CounterPunch noted that Austin’s anarchist site, raisethefist.com, featured what is known as an open publishing newswire, made famous by the indymedia.org network of sites, that allows users to submit text and photographs that instantly appear on the newswire at the push of a button.

"Austin provided free web storage space – or hosting space, to use proper Internet terminology – to activists who asked for it," CounterPunch observed. "Activists who took up Austin’s offer could, independently of Austin, and at their leisure and will, post, remove, and alter web pages they themselves created and authored.”

One user uploaded the following text to the site Austin hosted: “a small section with recipes for explosives. Its latter part appears cobbled together from and inspired by instructions on explosives freely available on countless websites accessible by simple Google searches, as well as published books. They do not appear very detailed, or for that matter, effective,” CounterPunch wrote.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Austin took a plea bargain rather than face a potential 20 years in jail due to enhanced terrorism penalties.

"U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson sentenced Austin to triple the sentence term the prosecutor had recommended under a binding plea bargain agreement, along with three years of probation,” reported EFF, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group dedicated to protecting digital rights.

KPFK , the Pacifica radio station in L.A., covered Austin’s return to L.A. on July 14, and reported that his probation terms are also extremely onerous.

Austin cannot speak on cellphones without receiving prior permission from his parole officer; authorities will download and review his computer files; and he is being confined to a halfway house at the start of his probation.

Austin, a 21-year-old African American, maintains that he did not author or closely review the offending passage, which was posted by another party on the site Austin hosted. The other party – reportedly an affluent white teenager - was not charged.

As Reagan-appointed Judge Wilson stated: “This is a case that has national, international overtones."

Austin’s case could theoretically be cited as a legal precedent wherein adult webmasters are held liable for obscene content, which does not have First Amendment protection, is posted on sites they host by other users.

A webmaster who only provides users with legal content involving consenting adults could potentially be prosecuted for child porn posted by others on sites they host.