Indymedia UK | 28.06.2005 09:36 | Indymedia
One month after the harddrives were taken out of the servers Ahimsa I and II in London, indymedia had many responses from civil liberty groups and professional journalist organisations. Legal steps are being taken or considered on both sides of the atlantic. The US State Attorney (ie the lawyer for the US government) has responded to a Motion to Unseal the server seizure court order in the US. A solidarity statement has been signed by more than 10,000 people, parliamentary questions have been asked in the House of Commons, and old hardware has been delivered to various Italian Embassies and to the FBI. Check the Electronic Frontiers Foundation for a factsheet and read on for a round-up of a wide range of responses.
Trophy of shame nailed to the italian consulate
On October 7, two harddrives were taken out of indymedia servers, named Ahimsa I and Ahimsa II, by forces yet unknown. The servers were managed by the ISP Rackspace in London. 20 indymedia websites, mainly in Europe, where affected. Indymedia Belgrade is still in exile at imc croatia. The other sites are up and running, some slower than usual. Five days after they disappeared, the harddrives were returned, again with no hint as to where they had been.
This doesn't mean the matter is closed. As Mark Thomas said in the New Statesman: This
"was the equivalent of the FBI storming the Guardian's offices and demanding that the paper hand over all its computers, including those that hold details of its writers and photographers." Jeremy Dear, General Secretary of the British NUJ, put it similarly:
"To take away a server is like taking away a broadcaster's transmitter. It is simply incredible that American security agents can just walk into a London office and remove equipment."
Together with Civil Liberty and Journalist Professional Organisations, lawyers, and individual supporters, indymedia is eagerly awaiting the disclosure of the original FBI court order in Texas as demanded by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) who is now legally representing indymedia in the US. Further legal steps depend on knowing the legal grounds on which the harddrives were handed over.
"The Empire Took Our Harddrives"
It is bad enough that 20 alternative media websites had to be recovered in a massive collaborate effort of new and old indymedia volunteers all over the world. But much more was affected: The democratic right to free speech, the right to know which agency stops an alternative website from working and on which legal grounds, and maybe also the sovereignity of a state.
The non-territorial nature of the internet is still giving headaches to the powers that be – existing legal tools are yet not quite equipped to control this vast landscape of legal and illegal, commercial and political, affirmative and subversive communication. Accordingly, the legal framework regarding websites and the internet is still fluid: If, for example, a website publishes slanderous content, who is liable? The Internet Service Provider? Its customer? The person who posted the slanderous content? And which law enforcement agency is in charge – does it depend on the state where the ISP is based? Or the headquarters of the ISP? Or its customer? The author of the incriminating content? Or the state where the website is being made or has its audience?
In the indymedia/Ahimsa case, the harddrives were handed over in the UK, following an order by a US federal agency which acted on the request of another country, possibly Italy and/or Switzerland, complaining about a website run by French volunteers. Or, as indymedia volunteer micah guessed on irc-chat the very day of the event:
"So this is about Swiss police, on a French site, on a server in England, taken away by American federal police..."
Jebba, indymedia tech, summed it up:
"Rackspace took down the server and handed it over to the Empire (...). I say the Empire because we don’t really know who ordered it." [jeblog, 7 Oct]"
The Electronic Frontiers Foundation, who now represents indymedia in the US, provides a concise article on the legal details of the incident.
First Responses within the Indymedia Network
A wide range of responses to the mysterious disappearing of the harddrives emerged after the indymedia harddrives were handed over. First came a buzz of practical activity within the indymedia network:
"Support from IMCistas and the 'net in general has been amazing. Last Thursday, I woke up, got on irc, jumped into #ahimsa and learned the news. Indy journos, lawyers, & geeks have been working 24/7 ever since. Even the trolls on slashdot can't back the governments on this. Everyone has been rallying and quickly making more mirrors of sites. We have renewed efforts to get better code which allows for faster & wider site replication. It has pulled everyone together to work for more robust and decentralized servers." (Jebba, indymedia tech, imc-press list, 11 Oct)
"IMC-UK was back online within four hours of the seizure, with virtually no loss of content. Others were not so fortunate. IMC-Uruguay has lost everything since last April; others are still assessing damage but most of the 20-odd sites affected have major damage." (Yossarian, imc uk, 11 Oct)
At the same time, a press group formed to write and disseminate press-releases, and to coordinate interviews with indymedia volunteers all over the world on radio, telephone and per irc-chat. Today, an archive includes more than 200 published mainstream media articles in eight languages, including Greek and Polish.
Civil Liberty Groups Worried
Over the next days, public support from civil liberty groups set in. Kurt Opsahl, Staff Attorney of the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, states:
"This seizure has grave implications for free speech and privacy. 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." (EFF, Oct 8)
Peter Phillips, director of Project Censored (US) thinks that:
"this is an indication of the successfulness of the Indymedia network. Freedom of information is a radical idea when applied in a fair manner. Radical ideas will always be suppressed by the transnational corporate elites when ever possible. We must act on our rights to freedom of information to keep it safe, and when repressed find new channels and means to succeed." (Indybay Oct 14)
Anriette Esterhuysen, Executive Director of the Association for Progressive Communications, declares:
"We are disturbed by the apparently arbitrary and extreme measures taken to silence an independent internet-based source of information. This is a violation of freedom of expression across international frontiers." (APC Oct 12)
Yossarian, an indymedia volunteer, conjures up a considerably darker vision:
"The FBI has stolen an irreplaceable piece of our collective history. The equipment that we use to help people 'be their own media' has been spirited away to some sort of Guantanamo Bay for "terrorist" computer hard drives. (...) Thousands of articles have been pulled from the sunlit internet into the dark prison of the U.S. government's "undernet." Perhaps the FBI will use the stolen equipment to set up an Undermedia network for use by the detainees in Guantanamo, Belmarsh Prison, Abu Ghraib? (imc uk Oct 11)
Journalist Organisations Support Indymedia
Similarly concerned where professional journalist organisations, who published statements of support within the next week. They are
"upset" about the
"intolerable and intrusive international police operation (...) against a network specialising in independent journalism" IFJ, the
"scandalous infraction of the right to free speech" (Dutch federation of journalists?), this deplorable incident, Indymedia's
"Kafkaesque position of not knowing the identity of its accusers",
"they can apparently close the operation down without any reason being given", and the
"disturbing feature of the case regarding the use of MLATs". Some even
"condemn" the seizure or protest against it. IPI interprets it as
" an unwelcome precedent for distinguishing between traditional news media and Internet news sites" and considers it
"highly unlikely that the authorities would have acted in such a heavy-handed way if the media in question were a Western newspaper or broadcaster." For the IFJ, the incident
"smacks more of intimidation of legitimate journalistic inquiry than crime-busting". The British National Union of Journalists regards it as a maximum of freedom for informationspreading on the Net. The IFJ
International Press Institute (IPI) | International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) | World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) | UK National Union of Journalists (NUJ) | Dutch Federation of Journalists NVJ | Reporters Without Borders (RSF) | Belgian Journalist Association (Algemene Vereniging van Beroepsjournalisten in België) AVBB)
Political/Legal Steps Both Sides of the Atlantic
Statewatch (UK) elaborated on the suggestion that the British Home office should be able to clarify. Editor Tony Bunyan asked:
"Was the seizure of Indymedia's servers in London unlawful or did the UK government collude? - A trail that started in Switzerland and Italy has now ended fairly and squarely in the lap of the UK Home Secretary to justify."
MPs in the NUJ's Parliamentary group tabled questions to British Home Secretary David Blunkett. In reply to a parliamentary question asked by Richard Allan, MP for Sheffield (UK), and Jeremy Corbyn, the British home office stated that
Meanwhile, the Electronic Frontiers Foundation in the US had decided to represent Indymedia regarding the seizure of Ahimsa. They contacted the FBI to demand Indymedia's illegally seized servers be returned. A Motion to Unseal the original court order given by a US court to the US-based headquarters of Rackspace, Indymedia's ISP, was issued. The US State Attorney (i.e. the lawyer for the US government) responded asking that the request be denied, since the only parties involved were the requesting state, the the United States goverment, and the party on whom the subponea was served, Rackspace. EFFs advise to Rackspace really adresses all ISPs:
"If Rackspace stands behind its claim of providing 'Fanatical Support' to its customers, it will go to bat for Indymedia--one of its biggest customers--and demand that the FBI return the seized Internet servers (...) Rackspace should also fight for its own rights and challenge the gag order preventing it from sharing its side of the story.""
"You want our harddrives...?"
Indymedia continues to fight in its own ways: serious, manic, and sometimes tongue-in-cheek, like, for example, with the videogame Enduring Indymedia. Lawyers in several countries are working on the case. More than 10,000 people have signed a solidarity statement since it was put up three weeks ago. 26 MPs proposed to the House of Parliament to express
"deep concern at the seizing of web servers belonging to he independent media organisation Indymedia; request that the Home Secretary explains under what authority their wholly independent news service was prevented from functioning; and expresses its disquiet at this attack on freedom of speech via the internet".
While the Ahimsa hard drives were seized in London, the Amsterdam-based group "ascii" were evicted from their free public internet space. Ascii analysed both events as a
"signal of the current crackdown on freedom of speech". Their statement reads:
"We will keep on struggling for the right to think differently, act differently and compute differently from the way corporations and fascist state governors are trying to impose us. And if necessary we will compile our last lines of sourcecode on the barricades."
Some media activists turned to more direct expressions of anger and confidence. Houston Indymedia met with the Swiss Consulate (Oct 13). Indybay reports how internet activists planned to hand over hardware to the FBI (if they want our hardware so badly, they shall have it...) and documents the procedure. Delivering harddrives and other bits of equipment to the institutions that need them so badly seems to become quite fashionable. In Amsterdam, old hardware was delivered to the Italian consulate, and in Dijon, two harddrives were plainly nailed to the entrance door of the local italian consulate [pictures]. A cheeky message was delivered with the harddrives:
"You want our harddrives? We throw them in your face!"