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Congress Members and Staffers Blocked from Accessing Website for ‘Hackers on Planet Earth’ (#HopeX) Conference

Congress members and their staffers are blocked from accessing the website for the annual Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE) conference, according to a screen shot Firedoglake obtained.

A staffer in Congress tried to access the website on July 28, more than a week after the tenth annual conference was held, and got a screen indicating the site had been categorized as a prohibited website.

The screen that appeared informed users, “The website you attempted to visit contains content inappropriate for business use.” It included the label “hacking,” suggesting that has something to do with the decision to block access to the website. A House of Representatives logo appeared in the upper left corner, which indicated this was blocked by the network on which the government computers are connected.

Emmanuel Goldstein, editor of 2600 magazine and the lead organizer of the HOPE conference, reacted, “If anything symbolizes the problem with Congress, it’s this.”

“They have an opportunity to open themselves up to informed perspectives on issues affecting us all and instead they simply close the door and prevent any such education from taking place,” he declared. “I would love to know what in particular offends them on the site that they feel it necessary to prevent this member – and possibly all members – of Congress from potentially seeing it.”

Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who was part of a historic conversation with National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden at the conference, said, “Who is the ‘they’ who have blocked congressional computers? Sounds like China.”

“So congress persons and staff are to be denied the right to see what everyone else in the world can view?” Ellsberg asked. “They’ve already accepted the principle that CIA can censor what they put out,” particularly the Senate intelligence committee’s report on torture. “Now they’re controlling what their staff and members can learn. Not only protest but some civil disobedience seems to be in order there.”

The screen does not suggest that the website is blocked because it will contain discussion of information that has been disclosed without proper authorization and remains classified. However, much of this year’s conference did involve a number of presentations that dealt with freedom of information and whistleblowing, which would have included conversation on information the government still insists is classified even though that information is accessible to the public.

Jesselyn Radack, who is on Snowden’s legal defense team and spoke at the conference, found the decision to block the website “ironic” given the fact that the conference is “predicated on free speech and internet freedom.”

Also, she said, “The only thing I can think the government would find controversial is the incredible popularity that Snowden enjoyed,” Radack added. She noted that government was censoring a conference that was an “open event” and, in doing so, was targeting employee free speech and expression rights.

Ellsberg acknowledged that he had long been aware that members of the “national security bureaucracy” did not want its own members to “see in person a whistleblower like me, someone who was once one of them, with whom they just might identify and listen to.” He learned the State Department was sending US documentaries around the world that included the documentary about him, The Most Dangerous Man in America. He tried to convince the department to do a screening at the State Department, which he would attend at his own expense. The State Department never responded to his offer, which he extended at least twice.

Previously, the government has blocked federal workers’ access to WikiLeaks and, in July 2013, US troops were blocked from accessing The Guardian website so they would not be exposed to classified information in NSA documents that were provided to journalists by Snowden. (Oddly, The Washington Post’s website was never blocked, even though its reporters were publishing stories on documents reporter Barton Gellman had obtained.)

Whether access to the website is only prohibited for congress members is unclear. It could potentially extend to the Executive Branch, including the CIA, Defense Department, NSA, FBI, the White House, etc.

Congress is known to have been developing legislation to respond to the nation’s cyber security needs. What would happen if representatives were exposed to real and actual hackers, who might be different from the caricature promoted amongst officials in national security agencies? What would certain government agencies think if representatives developed a nuanced view of hackers’ day-to-day activities and how threatening or non-threatening they truly are?

Perhaps, this has something to do with why a culture of enforced ignorance must be maintained and employees, who work for the House of Representatives, must be discouraged from visiting this website.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."