This morning, both Boston newspapers featured stories that caught my eye. On the surface, they seem unrelated, but I think I can see a common thread.
In the Boston Globe (ick), they report about a disgruntled defendant in a drug case who felt wronged by a police informant. Sean Bucci has created an online database of known and suspected police informants, or “rats.” (They didn’t provide the URL, but a brief Google search found it for me. I’m not including the link, either. And if you find it, please don’t publish it in the comments.) He’s protected it with disclaimers and by locating it outside the United States, but it’s quickly become the largest known such database with over 800 entries.
And it’s having an effect. The Globe found one FBI informant who, when told he was on the site by one of his would-be stingees, is now fearing for his life. He had to abandon his home and job, and has to take such steps as never carrying identification on him to protect himself from being identified and killed.
The other story was actually an editorial from the Boston Herald. It sums up a recent fight in Massachusetts regarding charter schools. Charter school backers registered the domain name masscharterschools.org and promptly filled it with information, resources, links, and the like — the typical stuff groups like that put on their web page.
But their opponents spotted an oversight, and acted quickly. They grabbed the domain name “masscharterschools.com” and quickly filled that up with their own information and links. They did put in a small link to the other site, but it’s rather obscure and drowned out by the (to my eyes) very poor web design and clutter.
I’m a fierce proponent of the First Amendment, and these two stories trouble me. In the first case, I can see a compelling argument for shutting down the web site — despite the disclaimers, it’s clearly intended to obstruct justice and intimidate would-be witnesses. Society has a clear interest in promoting and protecting informers, and sites like that one exist solely for the benefits of criminals.
The second case, though, is a bit tougher. Courts have repeatedly ruled against “cyber-squatters,” people and organizations who register domain names simply to keep them out of the hands of others. But in this case, they simply got to the domain name first. Further, they do actually link to the masscharterschools.org page — if halfheartedly, at best. I think they ought to be allowed to keep their page.