by Kim Zetter


July 19, 2004


While legislators in Washington work to outlaw peer-to-peer networks, one website is turning the peer-to-peer technology back on Washington to expose its inner, secretive workings.

But outragedmoderates.org <http://www.outragedmoderates.org/> isn't offering copyright music and videos for download. The site, launched two weeks ago, has aggregated more than 600 government and court documents to make them available for download through the Kazaa http://www.kazaa.com/us/index.htm , LimeWire
http://www.limewire.com/english/content/home.shtml and Soulseek http://www.slsknet.org/ P2P networks in the interest of making government more transparent and accountable.

The documents include such items as recent torture memos related to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, a Senate Intelligence Committee report on what the government knew before it invaded Iraq and a document showing how the Bush administration suppressed information about the full cost of its Medicare plan until after Congress passed the plan. There is also a copy of a no-bid contract obtained by a Halliburton subsidiary for work in Iraq and congressional testimony from former employees of the subsidiary showing how their company engaged in wasteful and costly conduct in Iraq (such as abandoning an $85,000 Mercedes truck after its tires went flat).

Thad Anderson, a second-year student at St. John's School of Law in Queens, New York, said he was driven to launch the site by what he says is the current administration's disregard for fundamental democratic structures and its increasing practice of withholding information from the public. He wanted to give people access to crucial data about what elected officials were doing.

"I really think this is a crucial point, during my lifetime, for people to really look at what's going on with the government and make it be more accountable for what it's doing," he said. "The president and vice president have used executive privilege to withhold documents that almost every president for the last 30 or 40 years has released."

Anderson didn't intend to make a statement by using P2P networks, but his use of the networks to deliver the data counters the usual government and entertainment industry arguments that P2P networks have no value, apart from stealing copyright works, and therefore should be outlawed.

In this case, the P2P networks are promoting public knowledge and doing so in a way that makes it easy for people to obtain all related documents swiftly with a single mouseclick.

Although all of the documents on Anderson's site are available elsewhere, they are buried deep in government and court sites or scattered among the sites of various government watchdog groups and media outlets. It took Anderson about four hours and 2,000 mouseclicks to download more than 13,000 documents related to Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force from the National Resources Defense Council's website http://www.nrdc.org/ and from
Judicial Watch http://www.judicialwatch.org/ . But a visitor to Anderson's site can download a folder containing all of these documents in a few minutes with a couple of mouseclicks.

The documents, obtained from Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, suggest that the task force, convened in 2001, met secretly and may have colluded with energy companies and lobbyists to craft the nation's energy policy. The documents include a map of Iraqi oil fields, pipelines and refineries, and a document called "Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts" dated March 2001, before the attacks on the World Trade Center. They also include a now-infamous e-mail, known as the "If You Were King" memo, written by an Energy Department employee to a lobbyist asking what, if the lobbyist were king, he would like to see included in the nation's energy policy.

Some of the documents are informative for what they don't say. A 1.5-page e-mail between two Department of Energy employees features only the greeting to "Margot" and a final sentence reading, "Let me know if you have any further questions." The rest of the e-mail was blanked out by the department before it was forced to release the document in the lawsuit.

"This would be a crucial document the public would want to know about. But the entire document and other documents were redacted so heavily there was really no point in the Energy Department releasing it," Anderson said.

Anderson said that seeing the documents themselves, rather than reading about them through the filter of a news article, has a greater impact.

"It's a very direct and primary source when you read (these documents) without any spin," he said. "Unlike a Michael Moore film, there is no dramatic music being played. You're sitting there looking at it on your computer, and it's a great way for people to make up their own minds about things."

Steven V. Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy
http://www.fas.org/sgp/index.html at the Federation of American Scientists, says the site answers a growing demand from the public to examine original source documents. He calls it the Smoking Gun
http://www.thesmokinggun.com/ effect, referring to the popular website that provides original documents on celebrity misconduct.

"People have a taste for unmediated source documents," Aftergood said. "There is something attractive about being able to see original documents and not just be told by a newscaster or reporter what the documents say. What Smoking Gun is doing for celebrity misconduct, these guys are doing for public policy. I would say that the more Americans who develop a taste for government documents, the richer our democracy will be."

Aftergood says that although it's possible to get many documents, like congressional debates, through the Government Printing Office
http://www.gpoaccess.gov/ , sites like http://outragedmoderates.org and The Memory Hole http://www.thememoryhole.org/ help single out the most important documents from thousands of pages of material and put them in context so that readers can know, for example, if one document they are reading contradicts another document that came out a year earlier.

"What these sites do is to provide some editorial selection, to say that out of this undifferentiated universe of government information, here are some interesting things. That's a useful function," Aftergood said.

Aftergood finds the use of P2P to deliver the documents a good move and calls it part of the evolutionary cycle of online technology, in which tools and services that are controversial -- such as pornography -- lead the way in getting people to adapt to new technologies. Pornography, for example, had a role in pushing broadband into more homes.

"These questionable uses help win acceptance for new technology, and then others follow in their footsteps. If (outragedmoderates) provides an after-the-fact (legitimization) for P2P, that's great," Aftergood said.

Although Anderson is a Democrat, his site supports no particular political stance. It doesn't need to, he says, because the principles behind it find support among people of all political beliefs.

"There's a lot of people of both parties and independent parties who are saying that the things Bush has done on a number of issues is going beyond what mainstream Americans are willing to go along with," Anderson said.

Anderson said his goal is to help people obtain the information they need to speak up about what the government is doing wrong. He's encouraged that more and more people are doing so.

"Compared to a year ago when any criticism of the government was viewed with skepticism and accusations that you were being unpatriotic or unsupportive, I think it's great that people are starting to step out and say this is what our country is about. Being able to criticize our government is what makes us different from a dictatorship in the Middle East."

Informant: NHNE


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