eye WEEKLY May 19 1994
Toronto's arts newspaper ...free every Thursday
COVER STORY COVER STORY
POLICING THE NEW MEDIA --
INTERNET USERS HAVE THEIR LIBERTY THREATENED AS
LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES BLUNDER ABOUT TRYING (AND FAILING)
TO ENFORCE THE HOMOLKA PRESS BAN
Karla Homolka was sentenced to 12 years for manslaughter in the
deaths of two teenage girls. The ban on publishing details of
her trial was imposed to insure husband Paul Teale a fair trial.
But Teale's lawyer opposes the ban.
Homolka's trial has stopped being the story -- the story has
become the ban itself. There's been nothing new to report about
the trial for months, but the story keeps coming back because
_the ban_ keeps making headlines. Every time the ban causes a
magazine to be dramatically pulled from store shelves, every time
the ban causes cops to barge into a student's life with unfounded
allegations, every time a university censors or snoops out
private information, the Homolka case is dragged back into the
Once there, details are rehashed and new ban-breaking potential
results. It's a vicious circle from which the attorney-general's
office is desperately trying to extricate itself. It's no
coincidence Teale's trial was suddenly moved forward.
Indeed, the attorney-general seems ready to let police operate
with a free hand against Ontarians -- as one university student
found out the hard way.
'ABDUL' SCREWS UP
It began with one of the all-time great gaffes in Internet
history. Late last Jan. 31, 21-year-old Toronto student "Abdul"
(not his real name) arrived home to his basement apartment from
night classes. After a quick bite, he checked his Internet
account for e-mail.
To his delight, he found a copy of the revised Karla Homolka
computer file in his mailbox -- hot-off-the-CPU from a London,
Ont., university student. The file was due to be released the
next day to the infamous Internet newsgroup alt.fan.karla-
homolka. Abdul, the uncrowned prince of the Homolka-Internet
underground, got an advance copy.
The file contains a whack of rumors and grisly details about
Homolka's secrecy-shrouded quickie-trial last July. Internet
convention calls the computer file an "FAQ" -- a collection of
answers to "Frequently Asked Questions" about a topic. This
topic just happens to be the oh-so-controversial Homolka murder
trial and the ban surrounding it.
The Homolka FAQ is found wherever computers and Canadians
interact. It has undoubtedly been read by tens of thousands of
citizens to date.
But none of those readers know the identities of the authors,
underground computer activists -- only their mysterious aliases:
"Abdul, the Electronic Gordon Domm" (email@example.com), "Lt Starbuck"
(firstname.lastname@example.org), and "Neal the Trial Ban-Breaker"
By 2 a.m., after four hours online, Abdul is ready for sleep.
But not before he sends the new FAQ to Toronto's major news
outlets -- three daily papers and three TV stations. He has
e-mail addresses for each.
"I was trying to send the FAQ through an e-mail system in Finland
that lets the sender remain completely anonymous," Abdul now
recalls. "But it kept bouncing back to me unreceived." Eyes red,
Abdul finally decided to send the FAQ through a local fax
service. "I sent it, and went to bed. I didn't think anything
Major mistake: Abdul, perhaps overtired, instructed the fax
service to send a copy to the six media outlets -- as well as a
copy to Premier Bob Rae and another to Attorney-General Marion
Fatal mistake: Abdul left the real names of Lt Starbuck and
himself on the document.
Next morn, sleepy-eyed civil servants found the hefty document
awaiting them. The attorney-general's office refuses to comment
on its reaction, but suffice to say the shit began shunting
through government plumbing -- only to emerge three weeks later
directly on the head of Lt Starbuck at London's University of
On Feb. 22, Starbuck, 25, came home from school to find a message
waiting: Western's computer and network security officer Reg
Quinton wanted him to call. Starbuck did. He was told his
Internet account was frozen. He was to meet with London police
the next day.
Police?! Mind racing, Starbuck hurried to his home computer. He
not only deleted anything remotely related to Homolka from his
hard drive but "shredded" it via Norton computer utilities. It
was an operation to make any politician proud.
(Though Starbuck is known to the university and OPP, he requests
eye not use his real name, but rather his alias "Lt. Starbuck" --
his favorite character from the TV show Battlestar Galactica.)
It seems the attorney-general had notified the OPP, who had
passed a copy of the FAQ with Starbuck's real name on it to
Detective Sergeant Sandy Wright of the London police. Wright
"I asked what the police wanted done," Quinton
(email@example.com) told eye. "They wanted the student's
account shut down and to meet with him in person. Fine." Quinton
called in colleague Dave Martin, who administrates Starbuck's
account. No warrant, no subpoena, no problem.
The next afternoon, Starbuck death-marched himself over to
Quinton's office in the Natural Science Centre. Quinton, Martin
and Wright awaited with grim faces.
"During the two-hour interrogation, the police showed me the
document Abdul sent the attorney-general," Starbuck recalls. "I
stared at it in disbelief, whispering to myself, 'Oh shit.' "
It was Game Over.
Worse still, the police seemed to think Starbuck himself had sent
it because of the way e-mail readers save mail. Not
understanding what they were looking at, authorities figured
Starbuck had faxed it to them, with his real name, in some moment
of stratospheric chutzpah.
Cornered and terrified, Starbuck vowed to tell everything --
including the real name of Abdul. Wright asked Starbuck to open
his Internet account. He complied -- nothing "incriminating"
there anyway, his strict policy was to keep no Homolka files in
school accounts. Wright said he'd have to inspect Starbuck's
home computer. Starbuck explained everything was gone, shredded,
but Wright insisted he had to see for himself. (Inexplicably, he
set that appointment for the next day -- he found nothing.)
Wright informed Starbuck criminal charges still hung over his
head. But as long as he stayed clear of Homolka-mongering and
remained cooperative, charges would probably not be laid.
On Feb. 28, Starbuck had his university account restored. For
the next three weeks, he forwarded incoming private e-mail from
Abdul to Quinton -- including a list of about 50 people who
received updates of the FAQ. There were five more Western
One was Wayne Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org). Smith
would publicly complain on Usenet about the whole Western-LPD
investigation: "What they are calling co-operation here is
intimidation. It's like the old police state mentality: if you
have nothing to hide, why won't you take this lie detector test
when we ask?"
Starbuck says intimidation was a factor. "I cooperated with
Quinton for weeks after the event for the sole reason that I was
very afraid I'd get charged if I didn't."
Back in Toronto, Abdul was blissfully ignorant of the events in
motion in London. He noticed Starbuck didn't seem to answer his
e-mail any more. Ironically, it was Wayne Smith's public post
just quoted above that alerted him to the momumental gaffe he'd
made. He quickly prepared for the police. After all, he was
far, far more active than Starbuck had ever been on his best day.
But the knock never came on Abdul's door.
Which still bewilders Starbuck. "There's no rhyme nor reason to
it at all. If they're cracking down, why aren't they cracking
down anywhere else? Why me? I just edited a computer file. I got
sucked into this whole stupid affair and really feel bruised and
battered by it."
Abdul believes Starbuck was targeted because Western computer
administrators were spineless: "When the police knocked on
Quinton's door, it's clear Quinton said, 'Come on in, guys!' "
Another source close to the case put it this way: "The LPD asked
Starbuck to bend over -- and Quinton applied the vaseline."
The police would definitely need a warrant to peek at Abdul's
home computer. And then the issue would erupt into the headlines
CHARGED WITH POSSESSION
On March 28, Quinton wrote an "open letter" to the Internet
community --- which he says was on the "recommendation of the local
police." This letter, apparently carrying police sanction, claims
mere possession of the FAQ is a crime.
"My understanding is the LPD (and OPP and others) are of the
opinion that... to be in possession of such material is to be in
violation of the publication ban," Quinton wrote. And such a
breach could result in police getting a warrant and seizing
entire computer systems.
When eye called the LPD's Wright, he repeated this official line,
though without the same righteous passion Quinton seems imbued
with. Wright said the OPP told him possession of the file
constituted a breach of the ban. But OPP Detective Inspector
Frank Ryder told eye he doesn't know for certain. He only passes
information about possible breaches of the trial ban along to
local police departments. "It's their investigation, there is no
central OPP investigation," Ryder said.
So eye called the attorney-general. Spokeswoman Barbara Krever
said she couldn't comment on whether possession of the FAQ was a
breach of the ban.
In fact, the attorney-general has consistently refused to help
Ontarians understand exactly where the Internet fits within the
ban. People are left to operate in uncharted territory and law
enforcement authorities blunder about, unsure themselves.
Meanwhile university students have academic careers, if not their
very liberty, threatened.
Criminal lawyer Eddie Greenspan has gone on record saying he does
not believe the Internet's Homolka-infotrade breaches the ban.
He said accessing Internet files defeats the purpose of the ban
but doesn't break the ban. "I don't see anything criminally
wrong here," he told eye.
Greenspan notes the confusion stems from people thinking the ban
applies to details of the trial. The ban concerns publishing
that information. Simply cruising out on the Internet and
grabbing a copy of the Homolka FAQ is not a breach of the ban;
nor is holding it in a university computer account.
"If it comes between Greenspan and Boyd, Ontario's first non-
lawyer attorney-general, I'll take Eddie's opinion every time,"
Abdul believes courts in the future are going to have to
specifically mention the Internet -- "or, if they clue in, they
will realize bans are obsolete, it's time to change the system to
reflect technology." But how many judges have ever confronted a
login? Do they understand the raw power of it? Do they understand
how it circumvents all censorious power structures?
Former Supreme Court judge William Estey said something similar
in an April 21 speech: bans in high-profile cases should cease
because they just don't work any more. Estey blamed the
proximity of the U.S. news media. The Internet compounds the
problem exponentially. He said jurors must be trusted to do
their jobs -- that is, be exposed to various information and not
let it affect their legal judgment.
"The courts can't clamp information any more," Abdul says.
"Judge Kovacs stopped the mainstream press, but we aren't the
mainstream press -- we are the new media."
COVER STORY -- SIDEBAR 1 SIDEBAR 1 -- COVER STORY
UNIVERSITIES AND POLICE
University of Western Ontario's computer security officer Reg
Quinton told eye he isn't interested in discussing whether the
Homolka FAQ is legal or not -- if the police say it's illegal,
that's good enough for him.
But Ontario authorities, from the attorney-general on down, are
painfully confused about how Karla, the ban and the Internet
relate. Yet here we have Western's security officer saying quite
bluntly he doesn't care. He will cooperate with police for fear
his computers will be confiscated if he doesn't.
Quinton's open letter of March 28 addresses Western students: "If
you think the University is going to protect your 'right' to
break the law, you are sadly mistaken. The law applies here just
as much as elsewhere. You don't have a right to violate the
publication ban -- don't expect any sympathy or support if you
Since no one knows how the law applies, Quinton's actually
saying: "If you think the University is going to protect you
against the police, regardless if they are right or wrong, you
are sadly mistaken."
Carl M. Kadie (email@example.com), founder of the Internet's
Computers and Academic Freedom newsletter, thinks Quinton's
position is dangerous -- though he understands university
computer staff confusion.
Computer administrators have no history of standing up to the
police or the state. Librarians, on the other hand, have decades
of precedent in demanding subpoenas and warrants when authority
comes calling. Computer administrators lack this training and
Karen Adams, executive director of the Canadian Library
Association, told eye a librarian would probably have demanded a
warrant before revealing if Lt. Starbuck even had an account at a
Kadie says that computer administrators desperately need to
develop similar ethics. "Just as a professional librarian would
have been less likely than the computer system administrators to
turn over personal information to the police, so professional
reporters are less likely than students under the gun to disclose
sources to the authorities," Kadie told eye.
"The promise of the information superhighway is that we all
become librarians and reporters. The danger right now is most
people don't understand the responsibilities that come with their
COVER STORY -- SIDEBAR 2 SIDEBAR 2 -- COVER STORY
KARLA AND THE BOYS
Lt. Starbuck remains extremely reluctant about dealing with
media. When contacted by eye, after his opening shock at having
been called at home, his reaction was to refuse an interview.
But he decided to talk only so the story isn't told exclusively
"When I got caught with my pants down, my first worry was
criminal charges," he told eye. "My second worry was media
coverage, with myself being hailed as some sort of Martyr for
Free Speech. What was done to me may indeed be wrong and
illegal, but I have no interest in becoming a Gord Domm on the
Internet -- besides, Abdul already is and he's still very very
Starbuck and Abdul have never spoke directly, only through e-
mail. Abdul sighs at Starbuck's unbridled hatred for him now.
"He has a point. And I've apologized many times. Every time I
write a public letter, I apologize again. I know I screwed up
and he's suffered."
"Abdul says it was an accident," Starbuck says. "I believe him.
I also believe he is an idiot."
Abdul is not Arabic, by the way -- he's Irish. He picked the
alias Abdul in honor of an underground comedy tape by a Hamilton
individual who used the named "Abdul" in making a series of crank
calls to unsuspecting people.
"I was searching for an alias when it struck me the Homolka FAQ
is like the Abdul tape -- passed around from person to person,
with absolutely no official distribution."
Abdul says his activism issues from more than prurient interest.
"At some point, someone has to test how Internet will operate in
Canada. If we force the issue onto the public agenda now, the
less chance do we have of the Internet being censored and
regulated out of existence."
His net address is firstname.lastname@example.org -- not to be confused with
io.org, which is Toronto's Internex Online. Io.com is Illuminati
Online, in Austin, Texas. It's a game company that was raided by
the U.S. Secret Service in its over-zealous war with "hackers,"
so the company is very aware of the damage computer-illiterate
cops may cause in its computer bungling. Abdul was given an
operational base in Texas. Many people believe he's a Texan.
But he lives in Toronto and only works on a Texas computer.
Let's just wait for the legal system to grapple with that -- the
concept of where one "is" when in cyberspace.
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