Should We Link to the Unabomber?
An Essay on Practical Web Ethics

By Alan Liu, weaver of Voice of the Shuttle: Web Page for Humanities Research

Status of Unabomber Link on VoS: not yet created .
(See below for explanation.)

Page created 10/9/95; this revision 10/10/95; links updated 11/11/01)

Background: The Emergence of the Unabomber Manifesto on the Net

Shortly after the publication of the Unabomber's "Manifesto on Industrial Society and its Future" in the New York Times and Washington Post on Sept. 19, 1995, Time-Warner mounted the Manifesto on its Web server and made it available as a subpage (titled "Unabomber: Tightening the Net") from its Pathfinder home page. The link to the full text of the Manifesto is accompanied on the "Tightening the Net" page by links to a variety of mainstream media stories and commentary as well as by updates on the FBI's manhunt. Copies of the Manifesto have subsequently also appeared on other servers on the net.

The Issue: To Link or Not to Link From a Scholarly Research Page

The Manifesto, its context, and its reception are events of major interest to scholars in such fields as science-technology-and-culture, sociology, journalism, etc. This is all the more so because the distinctly academic style of argumentation and language in the Manifesto (which comes complete with the bomber's endnotes) establishes an intense feedback loop or "reverb" with the academic institutions whose faculty and staff have been among the bomber's favorite targets--and casualties.

Given the nature of the Manifesto's original publication history, however (i.e., violently coerced), the ethics of participating to any degree in the further dissemination of the document is problematic. This is certainly the case if one were considering mounting a duplicate of the whole document on one's server. But it is also the case, however attenuated and primarily symbolic, if one is merely considering creating a link to the document as it exists on someone else's server.

In the broadest perspective, the Unabomber incident is a uniquely compelling test of the ethics of pure research. Of course, there have been many controversies relating to academic freedom/censorship in the instance of objects of study believed (by some or all) to be objectionable. (See VoS: Censorship .) What is unprecedented about the current instance, however, is that it interrogates the relation between "pure research" and objects of study for which it is not so much the content as the publication history--i.e., the very process of emergence into the discourse of knowledge--that is murderous. What is it that research must do to treat such objects if its own status as a disseminatory discourse of knowledge is not to fall into complicity with--i.e., become an unwitting "mouthpiece" for--the Unabomber's means?

In the narrowest perspective (here and now, for this webmaster), the issue is whether and how to add a link to the Times-Warner Unabomber page from Voice of the Shuttle. (The VoS: Media Page already had a link to Time-Warner's Pathfinder, which is a general-interest journalism page.)

Thinking Tools

In coming to a decision on this matter, I was aided by my home department (English, UCSB), many of whose faculty, graduate students, and staff engaged in a common e-mail discussion over the issue. I am grateful for the remarkably articulate, intelligent, and candid responses--both for and against adding a link--that this intellectual community offered; and I am aware that I will inevitably disappoint some (and possibly all) of my colleagues in some measure.

I also found it useful to explore resources on the Internet specifically designed to help think through issues of computing ethics in general or this issue in particular. The Computer Ethics Resources on WWW metapage (U. British Columbia) introduced a wide array of relevant online materials, as did several other science and technology ethics sites. Also educational was the Usenet newsgroup, which on the days I visited it (contrary to the group's name) featured a variety of analytical critiques and commentaries (including a multi-part rhetorical study of the Manifesto). (During my research on this topic, the comp.infosystems.www.* newsgroups on Usenet also witnessed a vigorous discussion of "rogue links" and the ethics of Web linking.)

Finally, I reviewed some of the general literature on theory of hypertext .

Rationale, Followed by a Decision


It all comes down finally to what a "link" on the Web actually is--i.e., to the meaning of such links as they are currently positioned (in relation to other technical devices) within the overall structure of Western media. It was the character of this overall media structure, after all, that the Unabomber so shrewdly exploited when he demanded publication in the Times and Post above all other organs. And it is therefore analysis of that structure--specifically: the relation between the bomber's media of choice and the Web as it relates to academic research--that furnishes the best context for an applied-ethics inquiry.


There are two polarized understandings of a Web link that I believe must be mediated (with specific attention to "media").

  1. One is that a link is analogous to a footnote, citation, or other such source-pointer in print media (e.g., a source-attribution in a newspaper or a bibliographical note in a scholarly essay). On this model, VoS and other metapages are merely collections of citations; and there is no more of an ethical problem in linking to the Unabomber's text than in saying in print, "See the Unabomber's Manifesto in the New York Times, Sept. 19, 1995." (For an extreme example of what might be called "print-mentality" applied to Web links, see the New York Public Library's web page, whose second link disclaims "any warranty as to" the "accuracy, authoritativeness, timeliness, usefulness or fitness for a particular purpose" of information found through the page (full text of disclaimer ).
  2. The other is that linking to the Unabomber's text amounts to no less than perpetuating and, indeed, amplifying the original act of publication.

Both these positions, it seems to me, are wrong to the extent that they depend on a false analogy with print media. A link is certainly akin to a citation in a newspaper or book, of course, but as the literature on hypertext helps confirm, its sheer immediacy together with its capacity to serve up the entirety of its target text (one can get the full Manifesto from Time-Warner's page within seconds by clicking on the appropriate link) leads to a qualitative experiential difference. A link is not just a citation on steroids but a different kind of animal.

Yet by the same token, a web link cannot be resembled to an act of publication or re-publication (which is simply a print-analogy drawn from the other side of the scale as the citation analogy). Mounting the Manifesto on one's server can sensibly be called republication, but merely linking to it from another server cannot.

Therefore, it would seem that some middle position is called for: a mediation that, to be intelligent, must be founded on a rethinking of the media situation undergirding the issue.


The best way to begin understanding what the difference is between a web link and a citation or publication in their respective media contexts is first of all to survey the literature on networking and computing ethics. Put broadly, even a quick perusal of the books, essays, and organizations that have emerged to address computing ethics will show that the ethics of the Internet are currently being worried under four headings:

  1. Right to Intellectual Property (e.g., "you can't use my image on your page without permission")
  2. Right to Privacy (e.g., "don't let the government coopt encryption")
  3. Right to Intellectual Freedom ("information wants to be free")
  4. Right to Bandwidth ("don't spam the Net because it hogs resources that others need")

There is much complexity in the interrelation of these four cardinal axioms of network ethics (so far an exclusively Western ethics, it might be pointed out). But for the purposes of the present analysis it may be said that they are all sides of the same coin. Controversy over the axioms represents an effort to define the "proprietary" authority of networked information so as to readjust inappropriate protocols/laws of proprietorship originally evolved for Western print and broadcast media. The above axioms thus construct networked information between them as a special kind of object whose antithetical structure--something that can be owned in private but in such a way as to be normatively free for common access via egalitarian bandwidth --mirrors in a new idiom the antithetical structure of traditional media. Whether the total structure of the emergent communicational network will eventually correspond homeostatically to that of traditional media, or whether it will diverge in crucial ways, is not yet decidable. Nor, in any case, is this latter issue germane here. What is clear and apropos, I believe, is that the significance of individual media devices (e.g., citation) within each media structure need not be the same as that of their analogues in other media. Devices that resemble each other superficially may in fact play completely different roles relative to their position in their native system. For instance, a device that in one media is customarily used to protect intellectual property and/or privacy may in another facilitate fluidity of proprietorship.


To grasp how this sketch-analysis of the ethical structure of the Internet helps us with the issue at hand, imagine the nature of media as viewed by the Unabomber. What kind of media does the bomber value above all others to carry his message? Or, to be fair, what is the caricatural form of that fantasy-media?

Clearly, not networked media. At the risk of sublime understatement, after all, it may be observed that the Unabomber is not a "networked" guy. He works alone in a room somewhere on a manual typewriter and issues messages of such an immaculately "non-networked" nature that the FBI cannot trace them back to any address.

What the Unabomber's communicational modus operandi emblematizes so luridly is that he is a creature of traditional print and broadcast media: a virus of traditional media whose exploitative parasitism brings out in exaggerated form the proprietary foundation of its host. Very telling in this regard is the bomber's pervasive, fetishistic use of the editorial "we" in his Manifesto--an oppressive "we"-voice that is not really scholarly (despite the elaborate scholarly trappings of the work) but instead a schizo imitation of traditional media authority. Like a schizophrenic who says, "We are the Sun King," that is, the Unabomber in some way is the (distorted) persona of traditional media. Broadcasting from what amounts to a powerful, hidden transmitter, his persona issues its editorials in the exact mould of the one-to-many and we-say-you-listen publication pattern of a national-circulation newspaper or TV company. And the result is the zero-degree of proprietary media. Though the Unabomber has no proper name, his entire purpose is to get his message out in a way that ensures that it cannot be appropriated, altered, edited, misattributed, or otherwise manipulated so as to tamper with the essential trademark within his editorial "we." (The bomber's compulsive impulse to stake out a proprietary identity is also witnessed in the fantastic romance of "we" versus "the Leftists" and others in the Manifesto.)

Now, were we to adopt either the print-analogies of "citation" or "publication" in evaluating a Web link to the Manifesto, I believe, we would be granting to the Unabomber the initial premise that battle must be joined exclusively within his purely traditional and reductive concept of media. For whether we think of traditional print media in a scholarly or journalistic context (the lack of any operative difference between the two in the Manifesto is itself of a piece with the Unabomber's thinking about media in general), it may be said with some assurance that both the citation-function and the publication-function are currently designed to pass content to the audiencewithout passing a jot of ownership. (We call it "plagiarism" or worse otherwise.)

Moreover, not only would we be granting the Unabomber the privilege of choosing the site of contest but that site is manifestly rigged in his favor. Crucial in this regard is the remarkable extent to which the bomber's discourse in the Manifesto pulls itself along from position to position by reaction against leftist, rightist, and other views cited in scare quotes. Scare quotes around "political correctness" and a prolific fantasia of other phrases supposedly cited from representative leftist, rightist, and other group-ist discourse are the Unabomber's way of appropriating speech to his own proprietary design while only feinting obeisance to the proprietary rights of the original speakers. (That is, because the bomber in his scare quotes is perpetually saying "they say" without accounting for who actually says what in what source, he is using others as a ventriloquism for his own sayings.) And yet the Unabomber expects all others to cite him fair and square: the condition he imposed upon the Times and Post was that they must republish his Manifesto in full rather than in the equivalent of "sound-bites" (of which scare quotes are the zero degree).


Now I can come to the heart of the matter. The difference between a Web link and either a citation or print publication is that it is "leaky" with respect to proprietorship. A link passes not only the content of its source information but a rascally, hard-to-figure component of ownership as well. Many are the correspondences I have had in my capacity as caretaker of VoS with other web-authors who ask my permission to borrow my links for their pages, even though "my links" are only pointers to resources that other people have developed. Symmetrically, some correspondents have expressed disturbance that I have collected links to third-party resources from their pages without acknowledging them--a practice that would in principle lead to insane link-descriptions of the following sort: "authored by XXX; link found in YYY, who found it in ZZZ. . . ." In the context of print, of course, the absurdity of chain citations of this sort would be clear. The fact that the situation is not so clear in the context of the Web indicates the following structural divergence between networked and print information.

With some obvious exceptions (e.g., bibliographical works, textual-editing projects, some of Derrida's footnotes), the proprietary substance of a print publication is that which bulks largest in number of words, type face, and so on. This substance is the "primary" text. Citations and other apparatus are "smaller" and not of the essence. By contrast (and without even needing to invoke the more rarified arguments of deconstruction or other "intertextually"-oriented schools of textual analysis), the Web is a medium in which a larger proportion of each page--and of the total number of pages--consists in links as opposed to "primary" matter. This means that the device of the link does not function structurally in the Web in a manner exactly analogous to citation/publication in print media. In many more cases proportionately than in print, links are not just non-proprietary pointers to someone else's work but part of what might be called a proprietary "assemblage-statement." They have an "authority" or "originality," in other words, that inheres in the uniqueness not of the virtual-clippings they take from the net but of the resulting collage-work. (Examples would be such countless-yet-each-individually-unique metapages as Marshall's Hot Links, Richard Stockton College's Cool Sites Picks, or Mirsky's Worst of the Web . Or again, consider the Oedipus Home Page, on which a kinky collocation of links to the Oedipus Rocket Program and Sophocles demonstrates that the essence of the page is the act of collocation itself.)

The bearing of this difference between the Web and print media upon the issue of linking to the Unabomber from a scholarly research page may now be stated as follows: the most ethical online response to the Unabomber's Manifesto, I believe, is neither to link to it transparently nor to ignore it (the outcomes of the citation and publication models of the link, respectively). Rather the best response is to link to the Manifesto in a way that actively exploits the trans-proprietary powers of Web-linking to submit the Unabomber to the logic of a medium not of his choosing and not so pliable to his conditions of proprietary communication. The solution to my stated dilemma is to link to the Manifesto in order explicitly to "mediate" it. And mediate it toward what end? Toward the end of taking it away from him, of appropriating it until it is no longer the property of his oppressive "we" but of a different kind of "we"--a "we" akin to that which (as heard in this present essay ) emerges from a scholarly debate in which what is "ours" is the debate and not any position in the debate.

A Decision

To some extent, adding a link to the Time Warner Unabomber page on VoS would from the first already be a scholarly mediation of the sort I indicate, since the link would go into an appropriate section of the Vos: Science, Technology, and Culture Page that "assembles" links explicitly to "reflect upon, historicize, critique, collect, exhibit, or otherwise mediate (and mediatize) sci-tech/cybertech."

But in the interest of ensuring that I err on the side of caution (forlorn though the hope be that I can stake out a middle ground acceptable to all those with whom I consulted), I have decided to hold off on adding a Unabomber link until a "triggering" event occurs. That event would be the discovery of a single substantive, linkable resource on the net that addresses the Unabomber's Manifesto in a scholarly way. Upon the creation or discovery of such a resource, I will create what amounts to a "Studies in the Unabomber Controversy" section on the VoS: Science, Technology, and Culture Page in which links to the Unabomber's Manifesto, the third-party scholarly resource, the present rationale, and any future scholarly resources will be collected. My hope, in that eventuality, is that users interested in the Unabomber case will find on VoS resources that mediate the Manifesto in a thoughtful, alternative manner to the mass media. On the pages of these hypothetical future resources, the Unabomber will be quoted, scared-quoted, analyzed, discussed, brought into juxtaposition with alien figures or traditions, assimilated to larger issues (in which he may fade into a mere footnote), and otherwise assembled and reassembled into other orders of knowledge.

In short, the Unabomber has used murder to publish. But we need not be held hostage to that fact by thinking that our scholarly "linkages" to him (linkages that can run the whole range from allusion through citation to quotation) need either transmit or repress him. We are beholden to reconfigure his act within intellectual contexts not of his choice so as to reflect upon, critique, protest, and perhaps finally even forget him (i.e., the proprietary "him," lord of luddites).

Otherwise, what ultimately is the moral function of research?

Lest I be thought to claim the last word, you may mail me here. The last question above, and many other things in this treatise, are still disturbingly open questions in my mind.