Fighting the Irish

Does free speech suffer in the aftermath of terrorism?

As the creator of a number of hardline Web pages supportive of militant action against the British presence in Northern Ireland and largely opposed to the peace process, Michael O'Lapain had come to expect regular hate mail. But on August 18, after he spooled through his in-box and brushed off comments like "murderous scum," he stumbled upon an ambiguously worded message from his Web server, GeoCities: his pages had been deleted the day before for what the GeoCities Community Response Team termed a "content guidelines violation."

O'Lapain ran the Irish Republican Web Action Committee (IRWAC), an umbrella organization for various Irish political and human rights campaigns, through his GeoCities account. One of his sites contained the manifesto and press releases of the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, a hawkish Irish group widely considered to be a front for the Real IRA. That group has claimed responsibility for the August 15 Omagh bombing, one of the worst atrocities in Northern Ireland's bloody history, which left 28 dead and more than 300 injured.

After seeing pictures of bodies littering the streets of Omagh, it's easy to understand why the Web pages might have incited emotional responses. But with O'Lapain on vacation, the IRWAC site had not been updated since August 12, and contained no reference to the bombing. Many of the negative e-mails received by O'Lapain were directed toward The Dissenter, his online newspaper, which has relentlessly criticized the peace process and what he considered the selling-out by Sinn Fein of Irish Republican principles. "I suppose we were putting a sarcastic point of view on it," O'Lapain admits. "We were quite cynical in our stories and we took a few personal digs at [Sinn Fein leader] Gerry Adams."

The Dissenter did, however, contain an article written by O'Lapain, "The Cost of Britain's Futile War in Ireland," in which he justified a Real IRA bomb attack on another town two weeks earlier. That bomb had caused no deaths. "We morally supported dissident republican armies, including the Real IRA. But we had posted nothing about the [Omagh] bombing," says O'Lapain.

After firing off an angry e-mail alleging censorship and violation of constitutional rights, O'Lapain has received no further explanation from GeoCities, except a second copy of the original form letter from the GeoCities Community Response Team and a copy of the guidelines.

GeoCities, the fourth most trafficked site on the Web, behind AOL, Yahoo, and Netscape, offers more than 2 million consumers (or, as GeoCities terms them, "homesteaders" or "GeoCitizens") the space to create personal Web sites that include banners from the company's advertisers. Members can also opt to pay a minimal fee of $4.95 a month to avoid the banner ads, as O'Lapain did.

GeoCities is unable to comment about the IRWAC deletion--or about any company matters--until September 4, mandated by federal regulations to remain silent following an August 11 initial public offering. Founder and chairman David Bohnett recommended consulting GeoCities's content guidelines.

The content guidelines ask members to "refrain" from activities such as displaying nudity or pornography; expressing bigotry, prejudice, racism, or hatred; using profanity; defaming persons or groups; or promoting physical harm or injury to any person or group. Within the guidelines GeoCities claims it does not "actively monitor content of Personal Home Pages," yet it does maintain a volunteer force of 1500 "neighborhood" monitors who comb sites for offensive behavior. These monitors--and any Web user--may submit a "Content Violation Reporting Form" when they feel there has been a guideline violation, and this form is forwarded to the Community Response Team.

O'Lapain says that when he signed on with GeoCities last September, he believed he was well within the guidelines of content regulations. He points to the explicit warning presented to any visitor upon entering his site. ("Warning. This is a highly controversial site. It has loud opinions. It supports ideas or beliefs which some may find offensive... You view this site at your own risk.") By no means a major Web attraction, the site, in O'Lapain's estimate, attracted about 1000 hits a week.

O'Lapain believes he has fallen victim to an ambiguous policy that enabled his site to remain up and running for a year with no problems, only to be lynched suddenly by what could turn out to be just a few outraged voices. "It wasn't until the disaster happened in Omagh that they [GeoCities] took notice of the site," says O'Lapain. "The bombing has become fuel for those who objected to us."

O'Lapain's objection is not merely that GeoCities removed his site, but that he never received notification of complaints, or of impending deletion. "I don't even know if anyone at GeoCities ever actually looked at the site, or if it was just shut down based on complaints." According to GeoCities's guidelines, the company is not obligated to issue a warning before pulling the plug on members' sites.

John McDonagh, a prominent New York critic of the peace process and host of WBAI's Radio Free Eireann, describes GeoCities's action as a "preemptive strike," adding, "It's outrageous that something happening in Ireland could affect the First Amendment rights of Americans. This happened before [the site] could even post an analysis of the bombing. If we can be pulled for reporting on what they consider terrorist bombings, then they might as well pull any news agency off the Web."

Anne Smith, a spokesperson for the pro-British Ulster Unionist Party, acknowledges that there are free-speech considerations involved but believes Web sites should at least be monitored. "If they are promoting terrorism, then perhaps the best thing is to have the sites removed," she said. "With the current climate in this country, there is a great feeling against terrorism, and these people [IRWAC], if they say they are just reporting it, are walking a very fine line."

The termination of Web sites by hosts, for political content as opposed to hate speech, is rare but not unheard of. Last July, the Institute for Global Communications (IGC), an Internet service provider, suspended The Basque People's Journal site. According to its critics, sections of the site supported the armed separatist group ETA. Less than a week prior to the suspension, the ETA had assassinated Spanish politician Miguel Angel Blanco. IGC, in its defense, claimed that a flood of e-mail complaints disrupted service to the point that it was forced to remove the site.

Just last week,Lycos, an Internet search engine and Web "portal," backed out of a recently signed content agreement with EnviroLink, anetwork of nonprofits, after Off-road.com, an online motor sports magazine, criticized Lycos for entering into a contract with a "radical environmental Web haven." This, says Barry Steinhardt of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization dedicated to protecting civil liberties on the Internet, seems to be the trend as the Internet moves more into commercialization. "These [commercial] elements are afraid of being controversial, and as these aspects penetrate the Web, we can expect it [the Web] will be less controversial."

GeoCities has come under scrutiny recently from both its customers and the federal government. Earlier this month, GeoCities was accused by the Federal Trade Commission of lying to customers about the disclosure of information obtained during registration. In an agreement with the FTC, GeoCities, although it did not admit wrongdoing, posted a new privacy statement. The company is also currently battling with members over the introduction of a GeoCities "watermark," which allows "GeoCitizens" to jump to other Geo-Cities sites. Members have complained that the watermark not only obstructs links, but slows the loading of pages. When one member turned the front page of his site black in protest, GeoCities stopped featuring his page.

As for O'Lapain, he's looking for another server. One, he says, that "doesn't care about bad publicity."


Signal and Noise

Bulk E-Management: Since its creation, Time Inc. New Media has been in the business of churn: money, employees, and talent. Dan Okrent, the lead executive, is trying to stop that, but he's got to figure out how e-mail works first. Last week, at the departure of four employees, an e-mail notice went out to all about a beer, wine, and pizza send-off. Okrent made the classic "reply to all" error, and sent this message back to all staff: "We wande [sic] to stop having all-comers' goodbyes, for morale reasons. Pls. make this the last one." —Austin Bunn

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