Home > Archive >New Attacks on Freedom of the Press
Mon, Oct 18th, 2004 01:53:05 PM
Topic: New Attacks on Freedom of the Press

FBI shuts down 20 antiwar web sites: an unprecedented act of Internet censorship

By the Editorial Board 13 October 2004

The US government move to shut down nearly two dozen antiwar, anti-globalization web sites on October 7 is an unprecedented exercise of police power against political dissent on the Internet. The World Socialist Web Site denounces the attack on the Indymedia sites and demands a halt to all such attempts at suppressing political criticism of the US government.

The shutdown was carried out by Rackspace, a US-based web-hosting company with offices in San Antonio, Texas, and greater London, in response to an order from the FBI requiring it to turn over two of its British servers that were hosting dozens of Indymedia sites. There are conflicting accounts of the legal process, with Indymedia attributing the order to a US federal district court, while the Electronic Freedom Foundation, which is supplying legal representation to the group, describes it as a “commissioner’s order” directly from the FBI itself.

At least 20 national web sites, including those for Brazil, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Uruguay were taken down when the hard drives for the servers were given to the FBI. Most of the sites were restored to service by the end of the weekend, but they may have lost significant digital content because of the removal of the hardware.

The seizure appeared to be politically timed. It came just one week before the start of the third session of the European Social Forum (ESF), a large gathering of antiwar and anti-globalization activists, scheduled to take place in London October 15-17. The ESF was to be broadcast live via streaming video on many of the Indymedia sites.

The FBI said the action was taken at the request of Italian and Swiss authorities, under the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, which provides for cooperative efforts by various national police agencies against international terrorism, kidnapping and money laundering. According to a statement issued by the web-hosting firm, “Rackspace is acting as a good corporate citizen and is cooperating with international law enforcement authorities.”

The invocation of such a treaty against a group of left-wing web sites with no link to any form of terrorism is an outrageous smear. Indymedia was formed in 1999 to provide live on-the-spot coverage of the anti-globalization protests in Seattle. It has expanded into a worldwide network of 140 locally based sites that provide extensive coverage of political activities that are frequently blacked out by the corporate-controlled media.

According to a statement issued by the Indymedia network, the group was asked by the FBI last month to remove a story posted on one its member sites about Swiss undercover police. The story included photographs of two secret police officers who had acted as agents provocateurs during anti-globalization protests last year outside the G-8 summit meeting in Evian, France. The FBI conceded that the posting of this information did not violate any US law, and Indymedia did not take down the information.

The two policemen had engaged in violent actions in the center of Geneva, the Swiss city adjacent to Evian, where most of the anti-globalization protests took place. These provocations became the pretext for police attacks on peaceful demonstrators. The Indymedia report gave the names and addresses of the undercover cops as well as their photographs.

Indymedia said it could not be sure that the FBI action was related to the Swiss police exposure “since the order was issued to Rackspace and not to Indymedia.” Two other possible motives have been suggested: one relating to the politics of Italy, the other relating to the US elections.

According to some Internet reports, the federal prosecutor for the Italian city of Bologna, Marina Plazzi, has begun an investigation of Indymedia for possible “support of terrorism,” claiming a link between the group and attacks on Italian soldiers in the Iraqi city of Nasiriya last November. Plazzi claims to have contacted the FBI as well as the Italian Department of Justice.

Several leaders of the neo-fascist National Alliance party have demanded the outright shutdown of Indymedia, including Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of the fascist dictator. National Alliance leader Gianfranco Fini is the deputy prime minister in the coalition government headed by billionaire Silvio Berlusconi, and a fervent supporter of Italian participation in the occupation of Iraq.

According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which condemned the Indymedia shutdown, this action may be related to a court case heard September 30 in San Jose, California, against some Indymedia activists who helped expose security flaws in the electronic voting machines that will be used by tens of millions of voters in the November 2 US elections.

Aidan White, general secretary of the IFJ, declared, “We have witnessed an intolerable and intrusive international police operation against a network specializing in independent journalism.... The seizing of computers and the high profile nature of this incident suggest that someone wanted to stifle these independent voices in journalism.”

A representative of the US-based Electronic Freedom Foundation said, “The Constitution does not permit the government unilaterally to cut off the speech of an independent media outlet, especially without providing a reason or even allowing Indymedia the information necessary to contest the seizure.”

Reporters Without Borders, an international group defending freedom of the press, also condemned the seizure of computer equipment in an open letter to David Blunkett, the British Home Secretary. The letter declared: “This intervention is the responsibility of the British authorities because it relates to a hosting company operating on their territory. Closure of websites is a serious step, the reasons for which should definitely be made public.”

This intervention by American police to shut down antiwar web sites has been widely reported in Europe, with accounts carried in the British Guardian and Independent and by the French news agency Agence France-Presse, among others. But nothing has appeared as yet in the American mass media. This silence only underscores the role of the American corporate media as the accomplice of the Bush administration’s attacks on democratic rights, both at home and abroad.

The suggested connection between the Indymedia shutdown and the US elections is especially significant. At the September 30 court hearing in northern California, federal judge Jeremy Fogel ruled in favor of two Swarthmore College students and the Online Policy Group, an Internet service provider that hosts an Indymedia site, in their suit against Diebold Election Systems, a leading manufacturer of electronic touch-screen voting machines.

The two students had web-posted internal Diebold company memos describing flaws in the software of the voting machines that would permit vote rigging and alteration of vote totals. The Online Policy Group was a party to the suit because it served as the Internet service provider for the San Francisco Bay Area Indymedia web site, which posted a link to the memos.

Diebold had brought lawsuits against several other groups that posted the memos, but the two students, active in the Swarthmore Coalition for the Digital Commons, filed a civil suit against Diebold claiming that it had unfairly used provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Judge Fogel ruled that Diebold had violated provisions in the act that make it illegal to knowingly misuse copyright law to stifle free speech. He ordered the giant manufacturer to pay damages as well as court costs and lawyers’ fees

Author: jc
Mon, Oct 18th, 2004 01:53:05 PM

Indymedia Seizure Signals Clampdown on Dissent

InterPress | October 17 2004 Free speech advocates say the six-day shutdown of nearly two dozen Web sites belonging to Indymedia is a severe blow to democratic principles and, perhaps, an ominous sign of things to come.

An international collective of journalists born out of the combative World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings in Seattle five years ago, Indymedia has evolved into a leading outlet for progressive media activism, particularly the anti-globalization movement.

While the motives behind the Oct. 7 seizure of Indymedia's London servers are still unclear, some are convinced it was orchestrated by the United States, especially since agents from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued the subpoena to Rackspace, the U.S.-owned Web host.

"This is not an isolated incident. It's part and parcel of a campaign by the U.S. government to use other governments to push their agenda – some of us call it 'policy laundering,'" said Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's program on technology and liberty.

The FBI has been tightlipped about the raid, stating only that the seizure was "not an FBI operation" and that it sought the subpoena on behalf of Italy and Switzerland. Indymedia activists speculate those governments were fishing for information on mass protests of the G8 (group of eight most industrialized nations) summits in Genoa in 2001 and Evian in 2003.

Rackspace was barred from disclosing details of the subpoena, except to say it was issued "pursuant to a Mutual Legal Assistance treaty, which establishes procedures for countries to assist each other in investigations such as international terrorism, kidnapping and money laundering."

"This is clearly going beyond tracking down al-Qaeda cell members," Steinhardt said, referring to the terrorist group believed responsible for the 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon and the reason for which the Bush administration launched its "war on terrorism" soon after 9/11.

He considers the seizure, "an indication of the growing importance of independent media and Internet communications, which have become the medium through which dissent is expressed. Unfortunately, this is a time when dissent is not being tolerated and vehicles for dissent are being punished."

The servers were returned without explanation on Oct.13, although Indymedia says it will not use them until they have been checked for tampering.

The group is also reportedly seeking an injunction to stop the export of data seized in the raid, including correspondence between Indymedia journalist Mark Covell, who was severely beaten during the Genoa G8 meeting, and his attorneys relating to a lawsuit against the Genoa police.

Indymedia has drawn the attention of U.S. authorities in the past for its coverage of the Republican National Convention in New York in August, and protests against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) in Quebec City in 2001.

In both instances, federal agents tried to obtain private records from Indymedia web servers and were rebuffed.

Media analysts say that in the post-Sept. 11 era, authorities must work even harder to strike a balance between upholding the law and respecting civil liberties, particularly when there does not appear to be evidence of an actual crime, as in the case of Indymedia.

"Governments need to preserve both safety and freedom. Investigations can be conducted without disrupting and compromising media organizations," said Jeffrey Smith, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin.

"Officials often think they can rely on security rationales to roll over essential rights. They really lose their heads and respect for democratic processes when they decide a threat is looming," he added in an interview.

"The problem is that dangers never disappear. Terrorism of some kind has always been with us and always will be. Creating a police state is not the answer."

Soon after the 9/11 attacks, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush passed the USA PATRIOT Act, which curtails civil liberties under various circumstances in the guise of investigating "terrorist" activities.

For example, the Act gives the government authority to monitor phones or computers used by a suspect or target of a special Justice Department warrant, and allows the detention of non-citizens without formal charges.

The administration has long talked of passing "PATRIOT Act II." Known as the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, it has never been introduced in the U.S. Congress, but a leaked Justice Department draft refers to expanded surveillance and prosecutorial powers and the ability to issue top-secret foreign intelligence surveillance court warrants to include U.S. citizens suspected of terrorist activities.

A version debated in the House of Representatives earlier this month would also authorize sending terrorism suspects to countries known to practice torture.

Numerous journalism associations flocked to the defense of Indymedia over the last week – although mainstream news outlets in the United States paid little attention to the story.

"The beauty of the Internet has been the way it allows free flow of information," said Mark Bench, executive director of the World Press Freedom Committee. "We are concerned that press freedom may be compromised, that the freedom to express opinions and information on the Internet may be curtailed."

Next November, governments and civil society representatives will gather for the Second World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia, and Bench worries that some states plan to work openly there for restrictions on press freedom and information flow via the Internet.

But the bigger picture is that corporate control of traditional media has undermined its ability to serve the public interest, leaving it to alternative outlets like Indymedia to tell the other side of the story, said Robert Shaw of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

"We basically want to see changes in the commercial media system and greater respect for the work of independent journalists," said Shaw.

"Indymedia is strengthening social democratic values in the context of globalization, even as political and economic power is being maintained in the hands of a wealthy minority."

Author: jc
Fri, Oct 15th, 2004 09:52:43 AM

More on the IndyMedia Affair:

(This appeared in The Register October 15 2004 edition)

Indymedia seizures: a trawl for Genoa G8 trial cover-up?

Indymedia and other interested parties are to seek an injunction preventing the export of the contents of the servers that were seized last week. This content is thought to have included correspondence with lawyers involved in the case against Genoa police accused of grievous bodily harm, falsifying evidence, slander and abuse of police powers, during and subsequent to the 2001 G8 summit.

The servers housed data belonging to a number of Indymedia journalists, including Mark Covell, who was beaten close to death by Genoa police, and is now involved in actions against them. One demonstrator was shot dead by police. Covell told The Register that email to his lawyers in Italy is likely to have been on the servers, and that a number of separate challenges to the seizures were pending. The injunction is likely to be sought by human rights solicitor Gareth Pierce within the next 24 hours.

The seizures are understood to have been carried out on behalf of the Swiss and Italian governments, with some involvement on the part of the FBI. Swiss authorities have reportedly said the data could help its investigation of Indymedia's coverage of the 2003 G8 in Evian (which is of itself an interesting choice of investigation subject), and the most obvious Italian connection is Genoa G8. Here, however, the Italian government's most likely interest is not in pursuing G8 'information terrorists' (charges of this sort were thrown out some time ago), but in the defense of the Genoa police now in the dock.

But earlier today Indymedia Italy said it had confirmation that the seizure order originated with Judge Marina Plazzi in Bologna. Plazzi is in charge of investigations concerning the FAI (Informal Anarchist Federation) and bomb threats made to EU Commission president Romano Prodi, and the order was made regarding alleged posts published on Indymedia Italy in connection with these.

But, says Indymedia, there are two problems with this. Indymedia insists that FAI does not use its networks, and points out that Italian law could have been used to further the enquiry in the first instance. Indymedia would have been likely to cooperate over the alleged posts,but has had no direct approach from the Italian authorities concerning the matter, who appear to have chosen to seize entire servers in order to acquire small pieces of 'evidence' that quite possibly don't even exist.

The UK Home Office's approval and support was required for the raid, but these would have had to have been granted on the basis that it was a legitimate request for assistance in obtaining evidence, not a fishing expedition intended to provide support for a cover-up. If however the data is transferred to Italy it seems likely that the case against the Italian state over Genoa will have been seriously compromised.

Although it was at first thought that the seizures had been carried out under a US-UK Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT),it now seems possible that the framework used was a European version to which the UK, Italy and Switzerland are signatories. The FBI's involvement therefore remains unclear, although it may have been approached initially because the hosting company, Rackspace, is US. MLATs, whose operation is cloaked by secrecy and gagging orders, are intended to provide a mechanism for signatories' security forces to obtain evidence and to make arrests internationally, and they are disturbingly dependent on the bona fides of the requesting party and the judgment of the requested one.

In this case, the latter is the Home Office, which is coming under pressure to explain itself. Richard Allan, Liberal Democrat MP for Sheffield Hallam, has tabled a written question for David Blunkett for answer tomorrow (Friday).

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