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see updated version: http://indymedia.org.uk/en/2004/11/300886.html

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Abstract:

One month after the harddrives were taken out of Ahimsa I and II, 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, a solidarity statement has been signed by more than 10000 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.

Ahimsa Gone and Returned: Responses to the Seizure of Indymedia Harddrives

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 \x93was 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.\x94 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\x94

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 \x96 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 \x96 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:
\x93So this is about Swiss police, on a French site, on a server in England, taken away by American federal police...\x94
Jebba, indymedia tech, summed it up:
\x93Rackspace took down the server and handed it over to the Empire (...). I say the Empire because we don\x92t really know who ordered it.\x94 [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.\x94 (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,\x94 said,\x92s. \x93This 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 \x93deeply worried", \x93deeply concerned\x94, and \x93upset\x94 about the "intolerable and intrusive international police operation (...) against a network specialising in independent journalism" IFJ, the \x93scandalous infraction of the right to free speech\x94 (Dutch federation of journalists?), this deplorable incident, Indymedia's \x93Kafkaesque position of not knowing the identity of its accusers\x94, "this nightmare world", where "they can apparently close the operation down without any reason being given", and the \x93disturbing feature of the case regarding the use of MLATs\x94. Some even \x93condemn\x94 the seizure or protest against it. IPI interprets it as \x93 an unwelcome precedent for distinguishing between traditional news media and Internet news sites\x94 and considers it \x93highly unlikely that the authorities would have acted in such a heavy-handed way if the media in question were a Western newspaper or broadcaster.\x94 For the IFJ, the incident \x93smacks more of intimidation of legitimate journalistic inquiry than crime-busting\x94. The British National Union of Journalists regards it as a "direct question of media freedom." The VVJ/AVBB pleads for a maximum of freedom for informationspreading on the Net. The IFJ "called for an investigation", the Flemish MEP Bart Staes will bring the seizure to the attention of the European Parliament, Reporter without borders have written to Home Secretary David Blunkett seeking "an explanation for the confiscations", and VVJ/AVBB urgently demands \x93complete clarity\x94.

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 Belgi\xEB) 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 "no UK law enforcement agencies were involved".

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 and is preparing for legal action in the event that negotiations with the FBI fail. EFF also demanded the disclosure of the original court order given by a US court to the US-based headquarters of Rackspace, Indymedia's ISP. Their 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 10000 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 harddrives 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!"

picture: Action_IMC-Dijon-20041104-01.jpg


-- IonNec - 07 Nov 2004 -- IonNec - 08 Nov 2004 andis ccs pennies comments incorporated
Topic revision: r5 - 10 Nov 2004, IonNec
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