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Success seemed imminent. A local TV station was airing a segment about his Web site, and he began to savor those precious moments of microfame. No more dingy years of self-subsidized screenings; now there'd be an audience for his art. But then came the FBI.
In a highly unusual move last week, FBI agents called Mike Zieper, an independent artist who goes by the name Mike Z., and "requested" that he remove his site from the Internet. When he declined, the FBI worked in tandem with the U.S. Attorney's office to persuade his Web host and its server to pull Zieper's site18 days after it went upwithout having a subpoena or court order of any kind.
Mike Z.'s Web site showed an eerie but amateur video that purports to be a military briefing. The clip opens with fuzzy shots of Times Square, over which an unseen male voice describes a secret army plan to incite a race riot on New Year's Eve. "First Team," he says "you're all here by oh-four hundred," and he then instructs undercover black agents to "Give them a little of the Amadou shit, agitate it."
The FBI was alerted to the site after receiving phone calls from people who thought its Blair Witchstyle footage was genuine army issue. The opening banner on the site read, "I don't know too much about this tape you are about to see. I got it from my cousin Steve who's in the army. . . . If it's fake, then there's nothing to worry about. If it's real, then we're in really big trouble."
The FBI's call came when Mike Z. was at a friend's house last Thursday watching his UPN 9 interview. Suddenly, his pager hummed, and when he called the number back, it turned out to be the local New Jersey sheriff's department at his front door with two FBI agents in tow, wondering if they could come in for a chat. Then agents Dan Calemina and Joe Metzinger got on the phone and said, " 'We know that you have this Web site and that it has been getting a lot of activity,' " Z. recalls. " 'And we want to know how we can get people to stop seeing it.' The implication was obviously that I would face a subpoena or an arrest if I didn't [take it down]," Z. says.
Instead, Z. contacted attorneys and put his computer in storage. But the agents made an end run around him. When Z. refused to pull his site, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office contacted Z.'s host, BECamation, the next day. And that was all it took. "I had no choice but to pull the site down completely or I would have lost my business," says Mark Wieger, BECamation's president, who feared that his own ISP would cut him off. Lisa Korologos, an assistant U.S. Attorney, requested that Wieger "remove the content so that it could not be distributed," Wieger says. (Both the U.S. Attorney's office and the FBI had no comment.)
Wieger later apologized to Z. in an e-mail: "To us a $75 job is not worth losing our business over. . . . We regret that this has happened and to lose you as a customer."
While Internet service providers are commonly subpoened by law enforcement officials, an attorney who specializes in cyber liberties at the ACLU could not recall a similar case in which the officers acted without a warrant. "I've never heard of anything like this involving the FBI," said Ann Beeson, a staff attorney at the ACLU.
Neither had Z., who was terrified when the agents called. "I was thinking, am I a criminal? I started to imagine those orange jumpsuits and spending time in jail." Z. believes intimidation was the point of the conversation, and that, says the ACLU, runs afoul of the First Amendment.
"Even though the ISP may not have been told, 'You must take it down,' there are still serious constitutional problems," says Beeson. "It is certainly constitutionally suspect for law enforcement to implicitly threaten any private entity with censorship." (The ACLU is considering a suit.)
For Z., blurring the line between truth and fiction is what makes his work unique. "I like to get people into a space that's not framed by narrative," Z. says of his video. "My work always looks like something that was not made for public consumption, and here it tries to address issues of race." For now, those issues will have to wait.