The Censoring of Burn!
The Censoring of Burn!
The story of an activist website’s shutdown, as told by DeeDee Halleck, with interstitial e-mails.
The function of the university is to seek and to transmit knowledge and to train students in the processes whereby truth is to be made known.
Statement on Academic Freedom, Academic Personnel Manual.
-Robert G Sproul, President, University of California, August 27, 1934
In 1993, before the Internet was a category on The Hollywood Squares, a group of students at the University of California, San Diego, set up one of the first websites. Wanting to take advantage of the university broadband, but also wanting a degree of autonomy, they built their own server, begged a few donations from local computer stores and repair shops and, with permission of the Department of Communication set up a server machine which they hoped would be a resource and an archive of political activism: it was called Burn!.
For 17 years I taught at UCSD in the Department of Communication, which was founded by the late Herbert I. Schiller in the early seventies. Reflecting its origins, the department had a reputation for critical studies and support of free speech. The courses utilize texts such as Paolo Freire and Robert McChesney which emphasize the need for community empowerment and access to communications resources. Those very issues were to come home in late spring of 2000, as the department became embroiled in a struggle around freedom of speech that put to the test some of the theoretical concepts regularly featured in the midterm exams of undergrads and dissertation drafts of the graduate students. This struggle was over the Burn! website. Some say the name was derived from the film Burn! by Pontecorvo, starring Marlon Brando, about a slave revolt in the Caribbean, though others say the students just liked the in-your-face juxtaposition of the word “burn” with UCSD.
The UCSD campus had been built over the remains of a military base on the desert cliffs of La Jolla in the totally administered style characteristic of the University of California. There was, however, an enclave of negativity in an abandoned Navy shed on one side of the campus that had housed the shower stalls for military recruits. This had been commandeered by students in the early 1970’s who turned it into a kind of free space, named after the hero of the Cuban revolution, Ché Guevara. The Ché’s vegetarian communal kitchen and cafe style gathering room served as the center of campus activism during the Vietnam War. With the post-war waning of activism, spurred by the death of UCSD’s leftist mentor Herbert Marcuse, and the cleansing of radicals from the UC campuses by Governor Reagan, the Ché lost much of its initial impetus, until only the beret-topped face of the martyred guerrilla, painted on the exterior walls of the cafe, remained of the militant days of the past.
There were those of us who worried that the lack of activity at the Ché would spell its doom and the administration would finally be able to remove this pimple from its corporate face. In a move to rekindle interest in the resource, I decided to hold my classes there. This was also a way for me to escape the increasingly sterile atmosphere of the official classrooms. Concurrently, several students with a similar aversion to the university computer labs decided to set up a resource called Germinal, which would be a cozy Internet connection as an adjunct to the café: a place with terminals, ‘zines, Paper Tiger videos and militant posters, modeled after the “info-shops” in Europe. The idea was to give students an option beyond the cold industrial atmosphere of the official computer labs, and a place where they could collaborate and create and get in touch with activists from around the country. The server was to be the center of this resource, with access to the fast and wide band width of the university Net. With the growth of computer activity on campus, the university set about to upgrade its network trunk lines. The students were assured that the Ché would likewise be upgraded, but the lines bypassed the Ché so the Internet activity at the cafe was limited. The university was unwilling to do anything that would encourage students to use the Ché, as they saw it mainly as an “undeveloped” piece of real estate that would make way for the future expansion of research labs.
It was in this context that the Burn! website arose in April, 1993, through the organization, Germinal. Initially a text-only connection, the site developed and its visitors grew in number. People from around the world found their way to one of the first non-corporate websites. In order to be connected to the faster main Net of the university for the bandwidth needed to expand to graphics and to accommodate the growing community of users, the server, with the tacit approval of the Communication Department, was moved to the office of the Communication Department computer technician and hooked into what was by then a quite broad Internet connection.
The actual server machine was still owned and maintained by what became the Burn! collective, and supported by a few members of the Communication faculty. As I was the official advisor to Germinal, the department hookup for their computer was within my “research needs,” in order to allow the students to use the extensive capacity of the university Net.
Over time extra memory was added, software was tweaked and serviced and the site (burn.ucsd.edu) became a sort of underground wildfire: picking up anarchists, rebels and a wide variety of international activists. The rapidity with which this site grew, and the numbers of hits it garnered, is similar to the response to the recent Seattle-founded site, indymedia.org. The server also had the capacity to host mailing lists, and be a service provider for groups who might not have such services available in their own countries or squats. It became known for its wealth of alternative political information, and was visited by activists and Internet mavens from all over the world.
This was conveyed in the Burn! collective’s manifesto:
*A freely-available collection of texts
- by groups excluded by the present global political order
-which have been censored or are unavailable elsewhere
*A laboratory for studying distributed (post-geographic?) social and political organization, publication, new forms of journalism and other cool stuff
*An experiment in cross-cultural communication and social organization
*A friendly place to experiment, learn, create and publish with computer communication technologies
*A group of activists working to prevent the enclosure of cyberspace and the domination of its inhabitants
As one of the Burn! collective members put it:
We provide access to censored news and political viewpoints. Lots of people in places like Peru, Colombia, and Turkey can read things on our server that you could get tortured or killed for publishing in those countries, or that are simply unavailable elsewhere.
Among the special features of its archive were perhaps the most comprehensive online collection of graphics and texts from May 68 in Paris. These graphics were used by Paper Tiger in the design of some refrigerator magnets. (See www.papertiger.org) One of the graphics was updated to address Guilliani’s New York City). There were also drawings from Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, and a large collection of Spanish Civil War graphics. The site never flinched from radical political issues, and has maintained a steadfast non-sectarianism. It has posted anarchist archives, Marxist-Leninist manifestos, Situationist texts, and has been a uniquely open site for a wide range of political perspectives.
For many people around the world, Burn! has been a model of alternative communication. Most mainstream discussions of new technology center on business uses, for example, on e-commerce and initiatives by for-profit companies. Among the small but growing list of Internet researchers who study the uses of new technology by activists and community groups the Burn! website is seen as an important mode of Internet use. It is well known as pioneering a unique form of interactive posting and transparent discourse. Burn! was one of the inspirations for the tao site, based in Toronto. Another progeny of Burn! is the indymedia.org site, initiated in Seattle Some of the technicians who set up indymedia had been members of the Burn! collective. during the WTO protests, which has had several million visitors while serving as a discussion board for environmentalists, union members and activists. Indymedia now hosts 44 location specific sites, including Prague, Chiapas and Melbourne.
Burn! has provided an important outlet for breaking news (during various crises in Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Bosnia, East Timor etc), for political art (the archive of posters from the Spanish Civil War), for environmental information, and for community exchange. Perhaps the key resource of the site has been the original materials, first hand communiqués from various insurgent movements: Mexico’s Zapatistas, ERPI, PKK, FARC, MRTA, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam; organizer training manuals published by Brazil’s MST; writings of antifascist groups in North America and Europe. In addition to posting space for Web pages, organizations were also allowed to use the server for mailing lists. CHIAPAS-L on Burn! is one of the oldest mailing list on the Zapatista revolt in Chiapas, replacing the site from UNAM, which was taken offline. COL-INFO was for many years the only Colombia-specific mailing list in the world, and ATS-L provides difficult-to-find recent news on antifascist and insurgent movements to a worldwide subscriber base of about 500 people and news organizations. The archives of CHIAPAS-L and ATS-L represent some of the highest-quality resources available anywhere for people researching the last five years’ history of these movements.
Most of the UCSD Communication faculty had no idea that this was taking place literally under their noses. One professor told me that he only heard about it when Der Speigel called from Germany, wanting to interview him about the site. But they all found out about it when some of the university administrators pressured the department to get rid of it.
There were several flurries of activity that drew the attention of administrators (and the national security officials who probably alerted them) to Burn!. One happened when the Spanish government organized an e-mail bomb campaign against the website after closing down Egin, the Basque nationalist newspaper, and the Egin Irratia (their radio station) in July 1998. In an unusual move for a government agency, a campaign of mail blitzes was initiated against the site, which caused a bit of consternation in the university network operations office. Literally hundreds of thousands of e-mails were suddenly sent to the site, almost bringing down the entire university mail system, and catching the attention of the network operators in the university computer office.
A similar thing happened with Turkey. Burn! hosted a Kurdish site, which was attacked by a huge volume of e-mails, emanating from Turkish government servers, although signed by “hackers”:
Hi UCSD.EDU Administrator; We are Turkish Hackers Association (THA). We send this e-mail to you because of http://burn.ucsd.edu…We want (you to) remove this sites (http://burn.ucsd.edu/~ats is important for us) because these sites contain terrorism [sic] purposes material. If you don`t remove this sites from your Web server in 10 day, we will attempt to your servers with our 145 hacker member. Yours Sincerely; Turkish Hackers Associations Sezgin Aynalibezgin firstname.lastname@example.org
Again the net ops people were alarmed and contacted the department about the problems of jammed lines. However, the response was not to close the site or question the use of the university net, but a more technocratic response: to ask for filter mechanisms which could limit the ability of people to jam it.
For two other incidents there was pressure from fairly high up in the university structure to demand that the site be closed. What is notable about the two campaigns to close the site is the timing: they followed two events directly involving U.S. foreign policy.
The first coincided in 1997, with the storming of the Japanese Embassy in Lima by the MRTA faction. Arm the Spirit, a Canadian autonomist/anti-imperialist information collective, posted MRTA communiqués on the Burn! website. The Burn! collective and Arm the Spirit took the position that this was a form of presenting primary source documents on events and organizations which were key historical participants. Indeed, the Burn! website also had had documents for several years on the MRTA, but the aggression of the action in taking hostages brought the attention of the world to the Peruvian situation, and Burn! had hourly communiqués from inside the embattled Embassy. In the global press scramble for background information on these groups and the situation in Lima, the spotlight turned to the Burn! website during the tense standoff.
Since the Zapatista uprising in 1994, many pundits and “net terrorism” experts had been busy churning out theses about the dangers of Internet guerrillas. The Rand Corporation’s “The Zapatista Social Netwar in Mexico” sees this sort of communication as something that needs to be contained in the name of “global security”. The U.S. State Department website, www.state.gov/www/global/terrorism sees any use of the Internet by revolutionary groups as terrorism.
Sharp-eyed journalists in Europe realized that the MRTA communiqués were primary source messages and worked quotations from them into their stories, including the Burn! URL. Just as the 1994 communiqués from the Zapatistas had enabled the rebels to speak directly to the press, the government and the public, the rebels in Peru were able to speak in the first person to the world. The net was becoming a formidable public sphere. Dr. Michael Dartnell of the Centre for International and Security Studies (CISS) and Department of Political Science, York University, has recently written, “A critical element in the formation of this public sphere is the ability to independently produce images and text to autonomously represent values, interests, and needs. Rather than simple propaganda, the focus then is the broader social, cultural and political context of electronic security. Insurgency online will be used to more accurately describe phenomena and assess risks.”
The URL of Burn! included the letters “ucsd.” Predictably, professors and administrators at UCSD were questioned by journalists and researchers about the University’s support for “terrorist” groups. This in turn was brought to the attention of the UCSD administration, some of whom were called and questioned as why a “terrorist” organization would be part of the august address, ucsd.edu. An article by Elizabeth Franz in Time said,
In the give-‘em-an-inch-they’ll-take-a-mile school of thought, the students who run the Solidarity Page and go by the name the Burn! Collective also provide links to a lot of other fringe political groups and radical organizations, including Radikal, the German resistance magazine banned in Germany; Arm the Spirit, the Toronto-based anti-imperialist collective; and the Zapatistas, who launched an uprising in Chiapas, Mexico. “The Real Revolution: Net Guerrillas”, Time Magazine, July 21, 1997.
Time drew a comparison between Burn! at UCSD and the State University of New York at Binghamton, which shut down a student site that had been posting material from the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionario Colombiano). “ ‘It [the FARC site] was in clear violation of university policy,’ said Anita Doll, director of communications at Binghamton.” This was contrasted with the stated position of UCSD’s Communication Professor, Dan Hallin, whom they quote: “We’re proud that our students are part of that communications network. We don’t see any reason to get rid of it because it’s controversial.”
Time goes on to quote Jim Phillips, “terrorism” specialist at the Heritage Foundation: “It is outrageous that groups who have attacked Americans repeatedly in the past were allowed to worm their way into a situation where American taxpayers subsidized their propaganda on the Internet.”
In a San Francisco Chronicle article, “Terrorists Get Web Sites Courtesy Of U.S. Universities” (May 9, 1997), Robert Collier states, “As the U.S. government fights against international terrorism, some rebel groups have found a safe niche at American taxpayer expense in state university websites. In California and New York, South American guerrilla groups have used sympathetic students to get free space on university Web servers - prompting complaints from critics that public funds are being misused.” The Rand Corporation commissioned a study of “netwar”: David Ronfeldt, John Arquilla et al, “The Zapatista Social Netwar in Mexico”, Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 1998. See also Eliot A. Cohen, “A Revolution in Warfare”, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 75, No. 2, pp. 37-54.
There have been other cases of university Web censorship, often centering around visual arts websites. Many of these instances involve visual arts students posting nude or sadistic photos, usually in the context of a final project for a one-time class, and their removal does not constitute any sort of communication disruption. What was unique about the Burn! case was that here was a Web site/server which had over five years of service to a wide community of users. The disruption of that service cased a hardship for the many people and organizations around the world that depended on the server for their e-mail.
The Vice Chancellor of the University received the following e-mail in May:
Date: Sat, 20 May 2000 11:09:35 -0500
Dear Mr Chancellor.
I am a common citizen of Colombia. A country that has been submerged in a bloody war initiated by terrorists of the worst kind, drug lords and corrupt politicians. Probably the most demoralizing aspect of my country’s life is led by the so called leftist guerrillas. These are groups of narco-terrorists dedicated to kidnapping, murdering, extortion, drug dealing and general destabilization of a weak democracy. I do not have to explain to you the nature of such terrible organizations that, just last week, in order to extort the sum of 3.500 dollars out of a humble woman they placed around her neck a collar-bomb that exploded some moments later in front of her family killing, not only this poor woman but the anti-explosives agent that was trying to disarm the contraption and seriously wounding another soldier.
The organization that committed such a heinous crime has found a safe heaven just under your nose, Mr. Chancellor. The main Web page of the FARC is originated from the USCD page. No one in its right mind can understand how can any organization like yours, in the name of freedom of speech provide a means to spread it’s horrible poison to an organization like the FARC, the so called ” Fuerzas Amradas Revolucionarias de Colombia “, and be able to sleep peacefully.
In the name of humanity, Mr. Chancellor, please shut up these monsters, and very probably save a few lives. Yours truly Rodrigo Bueno
The courses in the Communication Department might discuss empowerment through communication, but here was a case of Internet use by third-world peoples that was actually effecting events in the real world. This was too much for the university to tolerate.
The timing seemed especially significant as the US Congress was voting on military aid to Colombia. The Burn! collective responded:
It just infuriates the Colombian military and right-wing elites that people are allowed to be exposed to the FARC’s point of view. It seems to have particularly irked them that the Web pages gave the FARC the ability to reply to their attempt to blame the FARC for the murder of Elvia Cortes. That was intended to be their “Gulf of Tonkin Incident” just before the vote in the Senate on the Clinton/McCaffrey military aid package. So when the vote failed, they demanded our heads, and that’s what the Chair gave them. By the way, we don’t think this whole piece of theater was cooked up entirely by the Colombian right. We strongly suspect that the U.S government is also involved.
Pulling the Plug on the Server
June 1, 2000
From the Chair of the Department of Communication
To the Communication Department:
Last week and through this week, we have had an unusual barrage of complaints about the Burn! Page. We’ve had them for some time, often as frequently as once a week, and as they came in, I would try to deal with them, or direct them to someone who could. But last week some individuals started sending e-mail messages complaining in particular about the FARC page to a list of UCSD administrators, naming one vice-chancellor as the individual who was “responsible for Burn!.” The complaint was also directed to Gray Davis and a list of other people, probably drawn from the university’s home page. Very quickly, I started getting calls and e-mail asking that there be a response to the political content of the site…and I got a specific call from certain top university officials to either respond or disconnect the site. I have chosen to disconnect it.
As someone who has no individual participation in any aspect of Burn!, I am in no position to respond to the content of Burn!. Because the site is largely anonymous, there is no named individual who can be contacted by those who are complaining about the site, as a result, complaints are scattered across campus, directed at different people, and different university administrators. As often as I try to explain the goals of the site, the complaints find even more targets, and this week, they found targets who were very offended at being wrongly associated with Burn!. As a chair dealing with an anonymous site, with little connection to individuals who actually run the site and who decide its content, I have lost the ability to stand in front of it.
The server is now in my office, and I will await the instructions of the Burn! collective as to where they want to move the server. The content is still there - it has not been removed. The requirement is that Burn! needs to find a new network address as the burn.ucsd.edu address is no longer available to them.
June 1 2000
Dear Faculty and Graduates,
As the faculty member who has been most directly concerned with the Burn! website, I am disturbed that the site was closed without first contacting me. I was not informed about the notices which were sent to and from various UC administrators. This is a site which was initiated by students who were working with me and has been continued by students with whom I have been working for several years…On June 17, I will be presenting a paper at a public media conference at the University of Maine about this sort of Web activism. The Burn! site is an integral part of this research.
I realize that this sort of access to a variety of political views and news will often provoke reaction and dissension, but I hope that in the interest of supporting open communication, our department can speak up for open dialogue and free speech. The website has been an important source of global dialogue. It is also a key aspect to my intellectual research.
I am requesting that the server be immediately reinstalled.
The Chair responded:
June 1, 2000
The pressure about the Burn! site has been continuing for some time, and I’ve been dealing with it as the complaints come…Last week a new set of complaints came through. Like many before them, they were about the FARC page, but this time they claimed to be Colombians, and the messages were in Spanish. There were no threats in them, otherwise if there were, we would have called the authorities, but the tone frightened one of the recipients of the messages - a vice-chancellor who demanded that some response be made to the complainants, and he demanded that it be made clear he was not responsible for the Burn! page although he had been named as “responsible for Burn!.” We waited it out to see if the messages would cease, but they didn’t, they escalated and were sent throughout the system, including to the governor’s office. At this time, I started getting calls from the administrators demanding that there be a person or a collection of individuals who would step up and name themselves as responsible for the site. I wasn’t prepared to name anyone, and I decided that given the extreme pressure, and the uncertainty of how to protect the Burn! site, I would temporarily disconnect it and locate the server in my office.
It is ready for the Burn! collective to move it to another address. You can take it yourself, or perhaps you can recommend one of the other links as a site for the page. It is obvious, as you say, that the page serves an important link to others, and it should be set back up again soon… at an address less vulnerable than this one to this kind of overwhelming pressure.
A response to the closing came in Spanish and English signed by the FARC-EP:
Since the beginning of this month, the chair of the communications department of the university of the state of California at San Diego, with an intolerant and disrespectful attitude towards the rights of information, expression and of opinion, disconnected the Burn! server…The presence, on said server, of the homepage of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejercito del Pueblo (FARC-EP) was supposedly rejected via telephone calls by a few people who claimed to be students, and via e-mails from a few people who claimed to be Colombians. Let’s assume that these claims are true. Do these people represent anything among the millions of Colombians who are suffering the rigors of the war that the State has imposed? This action not only silenced said guerrilla organization; many other organizations and people were left without the opportunity to submit their opinions, and information to the cyberspace community. The rights of these people are being flagrantly violated by a functionary who exercises her power in a dictatorial spirit. Her decisions are implemented without the participation of the community that she is supposed to serve. Independently of whether or not one agrees or disagrees with the just and necessary struggle of the Colombian rebels, what is above discussion is their right to inform, and the right of the community to inform itself with their version of the Colombian reality so that with at least the two versions the community can build its own criteria and opinions.
In view of the preceding, we request that you express your inconformity with this situation by sending this message to the people and addresses that follow.
[a list followed of the e-mail addresses of the Chair, the Assistant to the Chair, the Vice Chancellor, the Chancellor and the President of the UC Regents.]
For their attack on freedom of expression, of opinion, and of information of the community. We demand the immediate and unconditional reconnection of the Burn! server.
Reaction to the Closing of Burn! From the Burn Collective
After seven years online, the UCSD Communication department chair…has censored the project hosted at burn.ucsd.edu. (The Chair) has made the decision against the wishes of the majority of department faculty and graduate students and without consulting or even informing any of the department faculty or students involved with the project, reported under pressures from the UC president Richard Atkinson. No explanation or justification for the shutdown was given, nor was any opportunity for a hearing or reconsideration of the decision. Host records were simultaneously removed from campus DNS servers, rendering burn.ucsd.edu nonexistent. Only a few hours advance warning was given to BURN! project representatives, leaving them no way to even contact most system users to inform them of what had happened or to arrange for moving to another address. When students retrieved the server hardware from the department chair’s office, the CPU board no longer functioned and the Master Boot Record on the primary hard drive had been damaged. After ordering the machine offline, the department chair left on a trip to (Europe) for two weeks. The other faculty and graduate students have spent the last week debating what to do.
From informal communication with people in the department, and from statements by UCSD’s campus spin doctors, we know that the University had received some complaints about burn.ucsd.edu from right-wing elements in Colombia, who objected to BURN!’s publication of information on the FARC-EP (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo), and found in this an excuse for censorship. The university also claims that they didn’t know who was responsible for the server, and therefore had no place to direct these complaints. This is patently false. More than ten BURN! members attended a department course-group meeting late last year, where they formally designated one student to be their official liason with the department. Last fall, a memo was also sent to remind the current department chair about this designated representative, and providing contact information. Both paper and e-mail copies of this memo were also given to each department faculty member. Also, the BURN! main homepage had a large disclaimer explaining that BURN! is a student project and that the university and communication department are not responsible for its contents. E-mail addresses to contact the BURN! project appeared prominently in several places, as well as hyperlinks to a Web-based “corkboard” for public comments. In addition, the standard e-mail addresses email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org have always functioned and were monitored. By making these claims, university administrators are trying to obscure their eager complicity with right-wing Colombian elites in censoring the views of the FARC-EP and denying everyone access to the many other unique and hard-to-find resources published on BURN!
Because The Groundwork Collective opposes censorship, we have decided to publish on the Groundwork website the materials formerly hosted on burn.ucsd.edu when it had its home in the UCSD communication department.
Statement (of the Groundwork Collective): The Groundwork Collective does this for two reasons: first and foremost, we are opposed to censorship of any kind and it is dangerous to allow anyone get away with it for any reason; second, the Groundwork Collective has been a registered student organization at UCSD for over 25 years and has a binding legal contract with the university. As such, the university cannot possibly claim that it does not have a place of contact to direct complaints against the site. There should now be no reason for censorship of any kind as the Groundwork Collective has formally responded to all official concerns supposedly created by the previous publication of the site. If they now try to censor the Groundwork Collective, it will be interesting to see how the university’s excuses change.
Yours in struggle,
A graduate student posted a series of questions about the issue to the Burn! collective. One of the questions was why Burn! couldn’t use a commercial server. This was the collective’s response:
The UCSD communications department was probably one of the most secure places to host our materials, and will not easily be replaced. Before we hosted them, The FARC-related materials had already been forced out of at least 2 commercial ISP’s and 2 universities in the US and Mexico by these same intimidation tactics. And every time somebody caves in it makes it even harder for the next site, as the attackers gain experience and feel more certain of their eventual success. No commercial ISP would tolerate these kinds of attacks for very long.
Another question was about the history of other attempts at closing Burn!
We’ve had lots of fights with fascists from all over the world. Turkish fascists howl about Kurdish materials we host. Peruvian and Venezuelan fascists complain about our publication of communiqués from the MRTA. Spanish nationalists mail bombed us for making Basque materials available. We’ve gotten death threats from Omega 7 and Alpha 66 because of Cuban stuff posted here. KKK types from the US send us hate-mail and post anti-black, anti-Jewish and anti-Mexican stuff on our public corkboard. Macho men write to remind us that we’re all fags. This latest stuff from the Colombian Right is nothing new. What IS new is the precision and timing of their attack, and the University’s somewhat unusual eagerness to acquiesce. That’s one reason we think this is coming at least partially from the US federal government.
In one communiqué, the Burn! collective, appealing to the self-interest of faculty, alluded to the growing rift between the progressive faculty in the department and the increasing moves to privatize the university with corporate funding:
Imagine a new organization of radical faculty, dedicated to opposing this creeping privatization of the university. Next, imagine that such organization had its Web pages, e-mail lists, accounts, etc. on Burn!. Wouldn’t it then be quite a bit harder for anybody to mess with Burn?
Reaction to the Closing of Burn! from Users
For the many users of Burn! the unplugging of the server meant that when they attempted to use their e-mail account or access a Web page, they would only receive a notice of termination. The Department of Communication shut the server without providing any forwarding site or notice as to the reason for the termination. The Burn! collective and others posted many notices that sped through other e-mail lists to inform the users of the situation:
June 11, 2000
Dear Friend of BURN!,
The UCSD Communication Department, which hosted the BURN! project at burn.ucsd.edu since it came online in April 1993 until we were censored for political reasons last May 31, is having a meeting on Wednesday, June 14 at noon local time (20:00 GMT). The outcome of this meeting will probably determine whether or not BURN! can continue to exist, and may also have fairly far-reaching effects on a variety of other radical projects in other places.
So we are asking for you (and all of your friends!) to send letters supporting BURN! to certain UCSD administrators on Monday and Tuesday. There are lots of other people here who support us, and we need to strengthen their position as much as possible in advance of the meeting on Wednesday.
The addresses of the chair and many members of the faculty were included and many passionate appeals came in. Several members of the faculty assumed that I was the one orchestrating those protests. One faculty member posted this to me:
DeeDee– The use of comm-talk to clog faculty mailboxes is almost certainly going to have a harmful effect at this stage in the process. The faculty have done what is do-able. I see absolutely no good coming out of an organized effort to hurt the faculty.
As is clear from the following excerpts from the messages which were sent to the department, many of which were posted on June 1 and 2, the day after the server was pulled, the response was not one which I or even Burn! needed to “organize”. Nor were any of these posts intended to “hurt” the faculty.
My first e-mail address was through Burn!. The recent (closure) greatly saddens me. If there is anything that those not associated with the university can do to ensure the survival of Burn! and similar forums for independent voice keep me in mind.
As the director of the Mexico Solidarity Network… As the director of the Mexico Solidarity Network, a national coalition of 85 organizations, I write to express my deep concern over your censorship of the BURN! collective at UCSD. The BURN! listserves have been important sources of information for people all over the US. By closing BURN!’s listserves, you are silencing this important source of information.
I’m an academic and lecturer in an English college, probably akin to your community colleges. I am extremely disturbed by the threat to the BURN! project. Aside from the censorship issues, their site has been an invaluable resource to me and is one that I have recommended to other history, social science and politics colleagues of all political persuasions. It has proved invaluable. I urge reconsideration.
From the American Library Association:
As a Councilor of the American Library Association, a group dedicated to the protection of open access to information, intellectual freedom and free speech, I deplore the action, taken in response to political pressure, to shut down the BURN! website.
I have had many occasions to visit the site and have, as a librarian and social activist, referred many people to it. In my considered opinion there can be no legitimate reason for shutting down this outlet for information not found elsewhere.
It will be seen by many in the academic community as a rash and unprincipled move which reflects badly on both the Department of Communications and UCSD. The decision should be reversed immediately.
From the University of Warwick, UK:
As a Ph. D. student the BURN! site has provided me with invaluable material on the conflict in Colombia on which I am basing my research. In my humble opinion, universities should promote and maintain freedom of speech and here we are encountering again a new case of net censorship motivated by unclear political means.
From Free Speech TV, Boulder, Colorado:
[Burn!] has provided information censored from the corporate media in the United States… The University’s action seems one more proof that there is diminishing space within the institutions of the United States for voices that do not toe the party line. The absence of those voices from corporate media underscores the reality that the “market place” is as efficient a censor as the Soviet Ministery of Propaganda ever was. The overt censorship demonstrated by the disconnect of “Burn!” indicates that the censors are willing to use force when the normal means of censoring opposition voices proves inadequate.
From the Seattle Public Library:
I am a librarian. I use Web-based information for our library patrons extensively…We encourage our patrons, especially students, to use primary sources when available. The BURN! website provided such information about FARC. Shutting down the site looks like nothing else but censorship. The information found at the site cannot be found anywhere else.
From South Africa:
Burn! collective (and the website) is invaluable. People from all over the world are able to remain “in touch” with events happening elsewhere. (and we don’t all watch CNN’s spin on world affairs.) Having lived under a repressive regime of apartheid, where censorship was commonplace and information was suppressed and distorted, it is distressing to note that in the “world’s leading democracy”, any institution should apply such restrictive measures. Certainly in South Africa, restrictions on the access of information (which were adhered to by most of the academic institutions and the press) were followed by partial and total bannings of individuals, organizations, newspapers, etc. The unwillingness and/or inability of media sources and academic institutions to resist the oppressive regime created a silence that allowed inhuman conditions to develop in this country. and after almost seven years of democracy, we’re still trying to untangle attitudes and ideas developed under the ignorance of censorship.
The closure of this website causes one to think back… to voluntary censorship, official censorship, bannings, detention, torture, murder… an ugly path, to trample on human freedom.
I would hope that you act quickly to put the Burn! server back on-line, and restore some part of the spirit of freedom of information, and some belief in our common humanity.
Harry Cleaver, from the University of Texas at Austin, who has tracked the evolution of the Zapatista use of the Web wrote to the Department:
According to those reports you, or others in the UCSD administration, ordered the closing of Burn! because of protests letters from Colombia from those opposed to the existence of a FARC Web page! I have read several of those letters. None of them threatened anyone; they were just the normal sort of protest letters one expects from those who don’t want the other side’s story to be told. This is common in cyberspace and it is what makes it a freer media than any other….For the UCSD to shut down a student Internet operation just because someone objects to the content is a clear violation of academic freedom. If there is more to the story than that, if there are any mitigating circumstances, any good reasons why this decision should not be reversed, please let me know.
My interest in this is both academic and personal. On the one hand I publish on the role of the Internet vis a vis public policy making, and on the other I “own” a list that might be the next target of what appears to be politically motivated intervention into university affairs. See: Harry Cleaver, “The Zapatista Effect: The Internet and the Rise of an Alternative Political Fabric”, Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 51, No. 2, Spring 1998, pp. 621-640.
A student at CUNY emphasized the loss for Latin American students:
I want to convey to you the practical implications of your decision. Hunter College has a large population of Colombian students…concerned about the civil war that is taking place in their country. Their concern has been intensified by the discussion in Congress of a $1.6 billion dollar aid package to the Colombian government consisting largely of military equipment and training to carry out an offensive against the guerrillas of the FARC. Opinions among the Colombian students here are divided about both the FARC and the aid bill and feelings are running high. Students who sympathize with the guerrillas or who simply oppose the aid bill face intense hostility from other Colombians.
Young Colombians are afraid to tell their parents that they attended a lecture or a meeting. And yet a debate is taking place. There are currently no Spanish or English newspapers or television stations in New York City that carry critical views about U.S. intervention in Colombia, and certainly none that present the views of the FARC. The debate that is taking place depends on information gleaned from the Internet, in particular from the FARC site hosted on the Burn! server. Your decision to disconnect the Burn! server will effect the terms of debate happening at my school – it will effectively grant one side of the debate a monopoly on the means of communication. Whatever you may think about the FARC (and I am not a fan), they command the allegiance of several million very poor people in Colombia. Their views must be made accessible to people who are debating the merits of waging war on them.
It is a comforting myth of the Internet that no voice can really be silenced. Deprived of their site on the Burn! server, the FARC will find another server somewhere else in the U.S. So we would like to believe.
The fact is however that there are precious few servers that are in a position to stand up to the kind of pressure you are undoubtedly feeling if you have decided to shut down this server after so many years. Commercial hosting services routinely cave in to pressure to remove politically controversial content in a matter of weeks. Universities are really the only place where it can be hoped that this kind of material will be made available. If we take seriously the role of the university as an institution that fosters informed debate, discussion, and scholarship, it is our responsibility to ensure that voices that otherwise would not be heard have access to the forums provided by our institutions – both in lecture halls and cyberspace.
I trust that you are a decent and thoughtful person who already appreciates the fundamental issues of academic freedom and freedom of expression involved in your decision. You are in a position, undoubtedly not of your choosing, in which you have the power to permit or silence the voices of groups and individuals who are officially despised and, in the case of the FARC, the likely targets of direct or indirect U.S. military action. I don’t doubt that there is considerable pressure on you to make this decision. I understand that this is not the first time such pressure has been put on you. I strongly urge you to do the right thing, to stand your ground, and to uphold the role of the university as forum for the free discussion of all ideas.
The effect on Latin American information services was indeed profound. David Wilson, who edits the Weekly News Update on the Americas, a monthly on-line publication, said that he had no idea how many of his correspondent/reporters were dependent on Burn! until the server went down. Many of his regular news providers were without e-mail or websites due to the Burn shutdown.
The FARC-EP was likewise without e-mail. For those who were following events in Colombia, the timing of the closure seemed especially calculated, due to the impending vote in Congress over aid to Colombia. Some attributed the shutdown to negotiations which were going on in Sweden at the time. The U.S. had not been happy with the fact that the Colombian government has been willing to cede territory and concessions to the guerrilla movement, and would have reason not to want the negotiations to proceed. It is rumored that the FARC-EP representatives were left without e-mail for the negotiations. This is ironic in view of the statements of Ambassador Michael Sheehan, Coordinator for Counter-terrorism in a speech at the Brookings Institution, in February, 2000. He railed against cyberterrorism’s ability to: “destroy or delay peace processes; provoke, prolong or entrench conflicts and otherwise accelerate the cycle of violence in areas of the world important to our national interest.” One wonders why then it would be useful to impede the Colombian negotiations in the name of countering terrorism.
UCSD Faculty and Graduate Student Reaction to the Closing of Burn!
A surprising number of the Department of Communication’s faculty had never logged onto Burn! However, with all the increased attention, many of them would have liked to check out the site, but with the total shut down, there was nowhere to login, and no way to find out what all the fuss was about. There were several department meetings about the situation, and comments raged on the faculty/grad student listserv. One faculty member pointed out the proximity of the closing of Burn! and the debates in Congress about increased military assistance to Colombia:
June 1, 2000
I think that in any discussion of the importance of the Burn! website, and its role as an alternative political medium, we should have more information about what is happening in the unfolding war in Colombia (as well as the preparations for war in Chiapas), a war that is apparently heavily sponsored by the US. Unfortunately, for reasons that communications scholars ought to understand, accurate information with a historical perspective on the US involvement in the war isn’t widely circulated.
It is quite a serious situation - many who are following it are calling it our next Vietnam - and my guess is that Burn! has been playing a very important role in informing an international community that would like to prevent yet another such monstrosity. So let’s inform ourselves.
(This person then went on to post several articles from news sites about increasing US involvement in the war against the FARC.)
One of the graduate students also recalled the Vietnam involvement and wrote:
Not the least of these issues (which much be addressed) is the support and preservation of a source of information about the affairs of a region that our country’s government is poised on the brink of becoming deeply involved in with potentially deadly and destabilizing (for Colombia) consequences. We may debate about the possibilities of grassroots activism and political action vis a vis the Web, but who can say how things in Viet Nam would have turned out if there had been widespread access to contradictory information about the Tonkin Gulf baloney? The Gulf of Tonkin incident (1964) was a fabricated attack that was supposed to have been carried out by North Vietnam. The “incident” was used by President Lyndon Johnson to attain authorization for a major escalation of the war. Most historians agree that it was part of a campaign by the Pentagon to win the hearts and minds of U.S. citizens to approve the war build-up.
One of the faculty wrote to urge that the department hold an open meeting to discuss these issues:
A department of communication, carrying forward an ongoing intellectual engagement with the relationship between power and expressive practice, should be singularly well-placed to provide for - and, indeed, to welcome discussion of these issues.
Those who knew about and had supported the Burn! project were rather defeatist. The department computer technician who had been the one forced to pull the plug had this to say:
The forces of evil, combined with the cowardice of (or perhaps in concert with) the managers of the University have been successful in silencing the voices for change that the machine provided a platform for….Sometimes I think I’m wrong to resist the forces of capitalism. I think the only way it will die is for it to be crushed under the weight of its own contradictions, and resisting forestalls that occurrence.
The entire episode was deeply disturbing to many of the Communication graduate students who felt disappointed that their Chair and the majority of the faculty did not take a strong enough stand against the closure:
I, along with several other of the graduate students, have been very disturbed by the circumstances surrounding the removal of BURN!… I understand the difficult position that pressure from the administration has put the Chair in, but I think there are real and important issues that urgently need our attention here…Among many other things, I was disturbed by the way the personal security fears of senior university officials were described as a motivating factor in the pressure to remove the site. This despite the fact that NO THREATS HAD BEEN MADE (as it was explained to us). The fear, apparently, stemmed from the fact that the e-mail complaints were coming from “(the) Colombians”. I’m trying to follow the line of reasoning(?) here, but can only come up with the following: that complaints from ‘Colombians’ are akin to threats (even when no threats are made), because we all know how violent, dangerous, etc. ‘the Colombians’ are. [thought experiment: would the UC administrators be so terrified if they received a barrage of complaints from anonymous Canadians?]
But this is really a side issue, since we as a community can’t be held responsible for the radicalized fantasies of senior UC officials. The same situation might (will) occur again when future e-mail complaint campaigns (which as we all know are relatively simple to orchestrate) are simply a pain in the ass to the UC administration. I’m concerned that the removal of controversial material becomes the easy and knee-jerk response of university officials, an informal ‘policy position’ that the BURN! situation would seem to provide a precedent for, and that the desire to make troublesome problems go away is satisfied at the price of a severely-restricted range of allowable debate within the UC’s electronic space.
I also wonder whether this latest incident, building on our earlier discussions re: university Web policy doesn’t call for a more coordinated community effort to deal with these sorts of issues. I think it’s wrong…to leave these sorts of decisions to the discretion of the chair. I do regard these things as matters of central concern to ALL members of the communication department, and don’t think we should put ourselves in a position in which the chair can, indeed is forced, to make what may amount to rather far-reaching policy decisions (although wrapped in the specificities of a particular case) in the absence of wider community input. Because these and related issues are only likely to grow in future, I’d like to suggest that we move to set up some sort of a Web policy group or committee involving faculty, staff, grad and undergrad representation.
I would also support any move to invite BURN! back to the communication department server, although I don’t know if BURN! itself would choose to return (and I agree that given the dubious character of our public space, if BURN! can find a more secure home it would likely do well to do so).
Another student questioned the fact that the order for censorship came from outside the department. This presents questions about the traditional autonomy of the intellectual community which a department comprises:
Are we in action valuing more the request of someone from outside this dept. calling for the shutdown of the server over our valuing of academic freedom and protection of a space for political speech?
One of the graduate students who is active in Lesbian and Gay issues and who is doing research on the use of the Web by activists wrote:
I think my concern is that often materials about queer sexualities meet with similar pressures and declarations of disapproval from the larger community. Many books with queer subject matter have been removed from community and school libraries on the grounds of their “objectionable content”…in fact, I am currently struggling to get my own book about queer youth into my old high school library; but, it has been deemed to “politically sensitive” an issue to put on the shelves.
This has been in the back of my mind since the beginning of the discussion of campus Web policies and the Burn! site. If enough people object to a publication created by a queer collective on campus that did not have a spokesperson, The student is taking for granted the statements of the Chair and others that there were no “spokespersons” for Burn!. Although there were members of the collective who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of political reprisal, there were designated representatives who had been known to the authorities from the beginning of the Burn! website. There was also an e-mail contact on the web page which was never utilized by the administration. Nor was I, as the advisor to Burn!, contacted when any of the “problems” arose. what would be the procedure for responding to demands for its removal? Would there be grounds if a large enough group (and/or an influential group) found it “offensive” to remove the queer group’s server?
This same student a few days later wrote:
Ironically, I’ve been regularly mining the Web for information on Queer Nation and the organization’s history (currently an orals paper topic) to examine constructions of Queer Nation in various media as compared to internal/”private” records of the org…I came across a file online titled: “ATS-L Archives: ANTIFA INFO-BULLETIN, FBI Spying: A ‘Public-Private Debate”…and guess where the file was/is located?? burn.ucsd.edu/archives/ats-l/1997.Jan/0106.html
So, in many ways my concerns that this dept. would not be in a position to protect work on queer issues has come (albeit circuitously and accidentally) to fruition.
One student drew parallels with the actions in Seattle:
Any administration that cuts itself off from dissenting viewpoints online sets itself up for defeat and underestimates the ground swell of popular support for alternative visions. If anything, the WTO demonstrations represented this in Seattle…It’s in the best interest of the University leadership as well as ours to keep Burn! around.
As the consternation of the students became evident at the Department meetings and in the listserv, some faculty worried about the impression being given to the graduate students:
…in the eyes of the graduate students we are beginning to look excessively reticent and perhaps too passive over an issue that they obviously are very passionate about.
One faculty member had been away at meetings of the International Communication Association and came home to a Department in disarray:
I have been spending the past couple of hours catching up with the debates in the department. As I was reading through the e-mails, I felt a great sense of irony about myself: while attending an ICA conference in a Latin American resort (feeling very much like a tropical fish in a well-maintained fish tank) and listening to debates about the need for “canonic texts” in the field, a case study about free speech in cyberspace, questions of power, race, and international political economy, are unfolding in my own department.
These discussions were quite appropriate to current topics in the discipline and resonated with many of the courses offered by the department. This fact was not lost on one faculty member:
A department of communication, carrying forward an ongoing intellectual engagement with the relationship between power and expressive practice, should be singularly well-placed to provide for - and, indeed, to welcome - discussion of these issues.
One professor did not like the “attitude” of the Burn! collective and seemed rather impatient and petulant. He reacted to a meeting at which the representatives of Burn! spoke with great passion about the need to restart the server and not keep the community of users without their resource:
Do they (the Burn! collective) have a monopoly on what it means to be “radical”? Must we concede to them the role of a vanguard in relation to whom other views appear to be no more than retrograde and reactionary? When they accuse the faculty of somehow being suppliant and cowardly agents of the administration who, in their view, is in obvious conspiracy with the menacing world of corporate evil pulling the strings of every third world puppet dictatorship, must we simply accept it and chalk it up to their youthful bravado and naiveté? And by doing so, further confirm their assumptions?
Or is there perhaps an opportunity to open up a dialogue about the complex workings of power and responsibility, of authority and accountability within the university from which everyone could’ve learned something?…
When does a show of passion stir action and movement towards resolution, and when does it result in further foreclosing discussions, staging instead the liberal fantasy that identifies individual feelings of marginalization with the collective sufferings of other subjects in radically different settings? What are the strategic risks of employing a rhetoric of guilt and shame when approaching a group literally awash in good will and good intentions?
…and further: what is so radical about seeing the world, as I think the collective does, in starkly Manichean terms? or claiming moral purity that allows you to cast others as unwitting or sinister pawns standing in the way of your crusade? such a stance amounts I think to the fetishism of the political, or to a kind of romanticism about resistance. of course, the collective is entitled to it, and not only because of their youth (indeed, this is not a stance that is restricted to youth as we all know. we are all prone to this sort of romance without which cross border coalitions and imagined solidarities would be impossible. but we are also responsible for taking a critical look at such romances and the effects they spawn, intended or otherwise). but the collective is not entitled to abuse this entitlement in the name of whatever it is they are fighting for. for this is what is at stake in the tone of their presentation, a tone which cannot be separated from their views, and which makes such views possible in the first place. it is a tone that carries with it not only the sound of idealism but also the specter of a certain violence inherent in confrontational rhetoric. it is therefore far from innocuous as anyone involved political organizing knows. and like all other forms of violence, it is productive as much as it is destructive of certain democratic possibilities. Yesterday’s meeting was an opportunity for learning how such possibilities unfold.
Not all professors felt so troubled by the “tone” of the collective and their defenders. A faculty member who has written a book on the Internet said:
I would like to thank the graduate students for their comments and questions about the decision to shut down Burn! The matters you have raised are profoundly important.
Question of Dependency
Geert Lovink, Internet researcher/activist, questioned why so much energy was going to the struggle with the university when there were now websites such as indymedia and freespeech that could accommodate such work. He objected when I used the word “censorship” in discussing the issue in a post to nettime:
Are you sure about that word censorship?
I am actually happy that Burn! is no longer on a ucsd server. I think Burn! should finally grow up and become part of the movement of independentmedia and its centers. our server www.contrast.org here in amsterdam might host Burn!, but I think it should have its own server on the westcoast, no?
While I fully endorse the need for independent media centers and independent servers in every community, I also think it is important to keep the public universities and university Web open to radical ideas and radical information exchange.
In Holland (and perhaps Australia, and other relatively civilized societies) folks have access to certain public infrastructure. I wonder if the Next Five Minutes (the conference Lovink has co-organized several times in Amsterdam) could have taken place without public monies.
That sort of support is really non-existent here, except for what creative students, faculty, and staff can carve out within the public universities. It is crucial that the few such spaces remain WITHIN those institutions.
I wonder if people around the world understand how quickly the U.S, is becoming a police state, where so many of our public resources go to build jails and equip the military.
Can you blame me if I am trying to help keep a tiny public space for Internet communication open to varieties of radical ideas in my not yet completely privatized university?
In one of many ironies, one of the last posts to the website was the following correspondence, received on the very day of the shutting down of the server from a professor at another UC campus, asking for use of graphics:
From: Steve Rossen email@example.com
Subject: Permission to use graphics from your site in a book
Dear Sir or Madam: I have been a fan of your site for quite a while, but recently I had the opportunity to write a book with my wife for Houghton Mifflin entitled “Teaching Online: A Practical Guide.” A few chapters of the book are already up (http://www.hmco.com/education/ko_rossen/teaching_on/2e/students/). In a chapter about Multimedia I used a few screen graphics of posters from your site and discussed how they might be used in a course dealing with the history of those times.
Professor Rossen was answered in the following post from a Burn! member using a different server:
The Chair of the UCSD Communications Dept, has censored us by ordering our server to be unplugged. This is the result of a successful letter-writing campaign against us orchestrated by the Colombian military and right-wing paramilitary groups, starting about two weeks ago. Our server was unplugged at about 9am this morning without any due process, and with less than 24 hours advance warning to us. We regret the disruption of your project and those of our other users.
Because of the many international cries of distress over the server being out, it was eventually allowed to be rebooted, the domain name restored and it was placed at Groundwork Books, the radical bookstore on campus on June 16, 2000, seventeen days after it was turned off. Although there is an open invitation for the server to return to the Communication Department, the Burn! collective felt that the action of shutting down the site was precipitous and hostile, and showed such disregard for the service that it was providing to groups from all over the world that they could not chance having that sort of arbitrary action occur again. Some felt that leaving it in the student center, which is periodically besieged by university administrators, would weaken its position, ultimately leaving the service without the theoretical and ethical support of a faculty supposedly committed to free speech and access to ideas and information. Several graduate students in the Communication Department deplored the move, stating that the Burn! server was something with which they were proud to be associated and which they felt was an important part of the department Web presence.
This was one of the first posts received in the new location:
I am so delighted that Burn! and all of the associated pages - Arms The Spirit - and so on, are back on the Internet. Really, I could hardly contain my joy. I know a lot us in Canada will be feeling the same way…My sincere thanks. Bethune Institute for Anti-Fascist Studies
There is a gap in the New York skyline. Airport personnel dressed in camouflage designed for the desert mountains of Afghanistan patrol with automatic weapons the airports and tunnels of the United States.
As we contemplate this changed landscape, I know that there are intense threats to the sort of information exchange that Burn! exemplified. At the very least, those posting information may be subject to careful scrutiny by federal authorities. A colleague who runs a community media center in a Midwest city had a recent visit from the FBI. Her center is the host server for most of the non-profits in her town. These organizations include everyone from the League of Women Voters to the local branch of Doctors Without Borders. Armed with both a search warrant and a judge’s order, an external hard drive and two laptops, three FBI agents went to work on their central server, downloading data for four hours. My friend was not allowed to watch which files they entered and she had to sign a non-disclosure agreement that she would not discuss this incident with anyone. She is brave enough to violate that command (though fearful of giving out the name of her facility), but how many community and academic information spaces have been similarly violated?
The information wars are escalating.