The New York Times The New York Times Technology April 21, 2003


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Computers and the Internet
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Don't Mourn, Yet. These Obits Were Only Designs.


Reports of the deaths of Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, Fidel Castro and other world leaders were found to be greatly exaggerated last week after it was discovered that some designs for their obituaries on could be found on the Internet.

The pages, which included one prepared for Vice President Dick Cheney ("loyal point man for two Bush presidencies") had been available to browsers for a full year. But they went largely unnoticed until last week, when a link to them surfaced on, a clearinghouse for Web wackiness.

What's new?

CNN, owned by AOL Time Warner, soon shut off access to the pages, but not before the Smoking Gun captured and posted images of them (

The Web posting led to widespread reports in the news media, some implying incorrectly that CNN had reported the deaths.

The designs for the obituary pages were not the result of hackers or pranksters.

Last year, Peter Rentz, a Web designer for, participated in Traffic Report (, an obscure online art project by Curt Cloninger, a Web designer in Canton, N.C. Mr. Cloninger had asked some acquaintances, mostly designers and artists, to allow him to publish their browser history files, which record the address of every page visited. He called the project an experiment in "data exhibitionism."

Mr. Rentz's surfing history, recorded on March 27, 2002, included visits to eBay, Web design and music sites but also visits to an internal development site for (

While the site may have been intended only for employees of, it was not password-protected. By allowing his browser history to be posted as a set of links, Mr. Rentz joined the designs for prepared obituary pages to the larger Web and allowed search engines to scan them.

Mr. Cloninger said that from an artistic angle, the stir over the obituaries was "an unintended but not unforeseen result of something I put in motion." He said it also shows how professional duties can collide with underground pursuits online: "There's just one Web."

Edna Johnson, a spokeswoman for CNN, said Mr. Rentz had left its staff some time ago. He did not respond to several e-mail inquiries.

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