Coding While Muslim

I don't know about you, but since the very early days of the World Wide Web, a lot of my time has been spent assisting a wide range of nonprofit organizations in obtaining domain registrations, designing, setting up, and maintaining Web sites. That's why I was chilled the first time I dove into news information about the Patriot Act-based charges against Sami Omar al-Hussayen, a Saudi National completing a Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Idaho.

On the one hand, the Department of Justice was claiming that al-Hussayen had built and maintained an Internet network for terrorists. But every time I read the specifics about what he did, it sounded like the sort of stuff I do all the time for various nonprofit organizations. And it sounds a lot like that Patriot Act clause could be held against anyone working on a campus IT resource that is misused.

The good news is that the trial is over and the jury acquitted al-Hussayen of the Patriot Act-related charges. That good news is for you and me, not for al-Hussayen, as the best he can still hope for after more than a year already of imprisonment is that he'll end up shipped back to Saudi Arabia on some visa-related charges.

There's a clause in the Patriot Act that makes it a crime to provide "expert guidance or assistance" to groups deemed terrorist. It was one of the parts of the act that many pundits, from a wide range of political thought, were critical of when the act was deliberated and passed. According to Georgetown University law professor David Cole, "Somebody who fixes a fax machine that is owned by a group that may advocate terrorism could be liable" under the provision in question.

By all non-governmental accounts that I have read, al-Hussayen is a very nice person and is in fact a pacifist, devoted to charitable works. But at first I bought into the government charges of a network of terrorism. But as the news kept coming out, I kept reading news items and waiting for the other sh'e to drop. I kept asking myself, "What is it that the Department of Justice really has on him? What did he really do that his defense attorneys are hiding from the public?"

Here's what he unequivocally did with regard to the Patriot Act charges, which are my focus here:

· He registered some domain names for some charitable groups, none of which are listed as terrorist organizations and the main one of which is still in operation as a legal charity;
· He set up some Web sites, including threaded bulletin board discussions, and maybe some e-mail discussion lists; and
· He was among the moderators of a Yahoo! Group on which a handful of posters posted messages in support of suicide bombing. (Heavily outweighed by other topics, including lots of postings against suicide bombings.)

It was reported that at his trial the Department of Justice displayed a graphic illustrating how one of the Web sites that he helped maintain could, through hyperlinks, eventually lead a viewer into 20 other Web sites with ties to bad organizations. Wow. Really? I wonder if those links eventually lead to the Department of Justice Web site? Care to follow the linkages on some of the sites on your institution's servers?

That's what became more and more chilling as I learned more about this case. He simply did not do anything with his information technology skills that I don't routinely do. Or that you don't routinely do as part of your job for thousands of students, faculty, and staff - any one of whom might decide to use those resources for bad purposes.

It's not coincidental that the jury kicked out the charges against al-Hussayen. Even though Idaho is one of the "reddest" of the red states, people clear across the political spectrum are more and more critical of many parts of the Patriot Act, including the clause at issue here. And, in fact, even as the Department of Justice was bringing this case to trial, an appeals court in California had already declared that part of the Patriot Act to be unconstitutional, although that ruling has no standing in the State of Idaho.

The best news, though, is that more and more people - of all kinds - think it's time to re-examine and refine the Patriot Act in light of what we've learned by seeing it in action. And I think that's a very good thing.

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