Heavy Hand of the Law
By Bobbie Johnson
It is a story with components that would have most conspiracy theorists running for the nearest tinfoil hat shop: a radical media organization, the FBI and an apparently anonymous foreign government.
Last week, Rackspace, a hosting company with headquarters in Texas, handed two of its London-based web servers to the FBI after a subpoena for their contents was issued by a U.S. district court. The servers contained material belonging to the Independent Media Center—better known as Indymedia (www.indymedia.org)—a conglomeration of global radical anti-globalization sites produced by ordinary citizens. Indymedia claims it was not informed of the decision to seize its content, nor has it been told the reasons, despite the fact that 20 sites and more than 1 million pieces of content were affected.
The FBI has said it was acting on behalf of a foreign government, though for the American subpoena to have power in the UK, it would need approval from either the British courts or the home secretary. Such agreements would usually be made over investigations into terrorism, though nobody involved has been able to confirm this.
Rackspace said it is complying with a court order “which establishes procedures for countries to assist each other in investigations such as international terrorism, kidnapping and money laundering.” Clearly, such serious allegations against any media organization—even one produced by amateurs—could be devastating.
“The site crashed last Thursday at 4 pm,” says one Indymedia UK volunteer who asked to remain anonymous. “Since then, the only official communication we’ve had was from Rackspace, but they would only say they couldn’t tell us what was going on. No one at the FBI has talked to us about this, and we have not been told anything.”
With the situation shrouded in a legal fog, the often-controversial grassroots news organization has struggled to operate its sites across countries including the UK, France, Belgium, Serbia, Portugal, Italy and parts of South America.
“This seizure has grave implications for free speech and privacy,” says Kurt Opsahl, staff attorney of Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights campaign group working with Indymedia to uncover the root of the FBI action.
It is not the first time Indymedia has come to blows with law enforcement. During the G8 summit in Genoa three years ago, buildings used by Indymedia journalists were among those raided by Italian police. Computers were destroyed and equipment seized in an action that international press watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres described as unprecedented and incredibly violent.
Founded as an anti-globalization news source covering the protests against the World Trade Organization summit held in Seattle in 1999, Indymedia quickly turned into an international network of citizen journalists. It provides a voice of underground political opinion around the world, though its open door policy has seen the occasional publication of unsavoury and offensive content, including anti-Semitism and incitement to violence—though representatives are quick to disown these.
The latest raid is more than just emblematic of the conflict between one radical anti-government organization and the establishment. It highlights the potential for conflict between law enforcement agencies and citizen publishers and sends a warning to anyone involved in web publishing operations.
“Certainly on face value it looks like an attempt to gag an independent media organization,” says Barry Hugill, a spokesman for civil liberties organization Liberty. “It is just possible that there is a legitimate reason for this action, but we certainly need more clarification.”
At a time when mainstream media is being opened up to the masses, such crackdowns deal a blow to citizen journalism. Threats to the freedom of web publishers could damage the amateur investigators and webloggers who are the lifeblood of independent online journalism. The lack of information given about these seizures raises the potential threat that anyone could see their content removed without warning or explanation. It shows how fragile Internet publishing can be—even in the hands of major media organizations.
“It is easy to go after the provider or the hosting company to close down a website,” says Yaman Akdeniz, the director of Cyber Rights and Civil Liberties (http://www.cyber-rights.org) and a lecturer at the University of Leeds cyberlaw research unit. “Unfortunately, arbitrary censorship exists. There are less risky places to publish information and there are more risky places. I do not recommend anybody to rely on a hosting company in the UK, and certainly our cyber-rights.org servers are run outside the UK for a variety of reasons.”
—The Guardian(UK), October 14, 2000