Like many flame wars, this one began with a compliment. When Brooklyn-based freelance Web designer Terry Baker, who runs a lucid personal home-page journal, got an e-mail accolade from from a Washington state home-page auteur named Alan Moretz about his site back in July, he did not reply. But over the next few months, he received a series of messages, each one increasingly antagonistic, and by last week, Baker could no longer emotionally afford not to respond. The e-mail had turned wildly offensive, taunting the HIV-positive Baker with comments like, ”I’ll be above ground and vertical long after your AIDS-ridden carcass has bitten the dust.” The e-mail sender used pseudonyms and remailers, and routed his missives through Spain to block trace routes, but friends of Baker’s used the Web’s ”Who Is” site, a popular e-mail identifier, to trace the mail back to a ”Moretz, Frederick Alan” at ”polaris@TSCNET.COM”.
On Christmas day, Baker transformed his site–a harbor for his daily reflections about work, music, and survival–into a public tool against ”Moretz,” and this is where Baker’s story begins to have dangerous implications. Baker published all of the messages in a one-page screed online. But by the following day, Baker’s own ISP, ASANet, took his entire site down under threat of legal action from Moretz. Moretz claimed Baker’s site contained ”unfounded allegations and personal insults” against him. As ASANet owner Rich Plass argued to Baker, ”A homepage is for you to give information about your personal life….It is not an areas [sic] we permit business or vendettas.” (Plass did not return repeated phone calls from the Voice.) Baker successfully pleaded with Plass to restore the site, but this time without the page containing the correspondence. At press time, that page is still offline.
It’s a curious turn when the victim’s rights get quashed to protect the rights of the offender. The jeers and scatological musings (like this classic: ”I just woke up and took a shit and as the tight hot load left my clenching anus I simultaneously imagined episodes of your being rampantly fucked up the ass knees flexing because of your need for the powder [sic] & starved victims of Nazis in Dachau being carted to the fleshpiles….”) are offensive, but bad taste–whether we like it or not–is both a civil right and everywhere online.
The real question is, why did the ISP cave? As the thicket of online civil rights gets thornier, the ISPs, not individuals, are increasingly held legally accountable for their customers’ actions, and most can’t financially withstand even the slightest liability. ”ISPs are feeling what it’s like not to have the common-carrier protection that the phone companies enjoy,” says Marc Rotenberg, head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). ”No one gets to call up the phone company and say, ‘This guy is harassing me,”’ and convince them to shut off service. Like a newspaper, ISPs are responsible for the pages they serve up to the Web. Small operations like ASANet (which doesn’t even have direct phones–they use an answering service) often decide to act cautiously rather than get slapped with a suit.
This is not the only incident involving Moretz. According to one producer of a personal home page, Moretz’s Web site included a reference to his page: ”…it makes me want to punch him in the face. Hard.” Contacted via e-mail, Moretz had these cryptic words to say about the case: ”An interesting twist: Goliath stones David, and invites the press to lend a hand.” If only it were that simple. It’s more a story of three Davids: Moretz and ASANet itself fumbling recklessly with the idea of justice, and Baker looking for a new ISP.
Signal and Noise