The FBI yesterday seized a pair of UK servers used by Indymedia, the independent newsgathering collective, after serving a subpoena in the US on Indymedia's hosting firm, Rackspace. Why or how remains unclear.
Rackspace UK complied with a legal order and handed over hard disks without first notifying Indymedia. It's unclear if the raid was executed under extra-territorial provisions of US legislation or the UK's Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). Provisions of RIPA make it a criminal offence to discuss warrants, so Rackspace would not be able to discuss the action with its customer Indymedia, or with the media.
Rackspace US has issued a statement which says that the investigation "did not arise in the United States", but which sheds very little light on the whys and the wherefores.
In the present matter regarding Indymedia, Rackspace Managed Hosting, a US based company with offices in London, is acting in compliance with a court order pursuant to a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT), which establishes procedures for countries to assist each other in investigations such as international terrorism, kidnapping and money laundering. Rackspace responded to a Commissioner’s subpoena, duly issued under Title 28, United States Code, Section 1782 in an investigation that did not arise in the United States. Rackspace is acting as a good corporate citizen and is cooperating with international law enforcement authorities. The court prohibits Rackspace from commenting further on this matter."
Dai Davis, an IT lawyer at London law firm Nabarro Nathanson, said Rackspace's statement fails to clarify the legal basis of the raid. "If it was a RIPA warrant, Rackspace can't refer to it. Most RIPA warrants can be issued by the Home Secretary," he said. "The FBI has no jurisdiction in the UK and would need to act in concert with UK authorities, such as the security services or police," he added.
The seizure of Indymedia's servers affects more than 20 Indymedia sites worldwide. The list of affected local media collectives includes Uruguay, Andorra, Poland, Nice, several French groups, Euskal Herria (Basque Country), multiple Belgian sites, Serbia, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Italy, Brazil, the UK, part of the Germany site, and the global Indymedia Radio site. One of the servers taken down at Rackspace provided streaming radio to several radio stations and served files related to the Blag Linux distribution, among other purposes.
While Indymedia is not exactly sure what prompted the action, the group does have one strong idea. A French Indymedia site last month posted photos of what it believed to be undercover Swiss police officers photographing protesters at a French event. Indymedia received a request from the FBI to pull those photos down, as they "revealed personal information" about the undercover police, said Indymedia press officer Hep Sano.
Rackspace appeared to confirm that the photos were an issue with the FBI.
"I apologize for the delay in responding. I have been trying to get a hold of the FBI agent I spoke with before, but haven't been able to at this time," wrote a Rackspace official to Indymedia earlier this week, according to Sano. "As the request originated with the Swiss police, I can only speculate on what they saw or what they were concerned about. However, at this time, I have received no further communications from either the FBI or the Swiss authorities, so I feel like we can close this this issue."
Still, Indymedia has never sorted out the matter with the FBI.
"They never clarified what they meant by personal information," she said. "The photos were taken on a public street."
Indymedia believes the photos were eventually pulled, but ironically cannot check on this as it no longer has access to the servers or hard disks. The group has not been notified if the FBI is even involved in this seizure or whether or not the servers or just hard disks were confiscated.
"We are still trying to work with the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) to figure out who is charging us and with what crime," said Sano. The EFF did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Reports are now circulating that government agencies in Italy and Switzerland prompted the action against Indymedia.
Indymedia said yesterday's raids were part of a wider pattern of "attacks" against independent media outlets by the US Federal Government authorities over recent months. Last month the Federal Communications Commission shut down community radio stations around the US.
In addition, an article submitted through Indymedia's Open Newswire service identifying the names of delegates to the Republican Convention and where they were staying in New York reportedly led to an investigation by the FBI. The Secret Service used a subpoena in an "attempt to disrupt" the New York City's Independent Media Centre before last month's Republican National Convention in the city. Speculation (on Slashdot) links yesterday's raids with this investigation. Indymedia, however, now clearly believes that the motivation for the server seizure originated outside of the US.
"We have witnessed an intolerable and intrusive international police operation against a network specialising in independent journalism," said Aidan White, general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists. "The way this has been done smacks more of intimidation of legitimate journalistic inquiry than crime-busting."
Indymedia (AKA Independent Media Center) was set up in 1999 to provide grassroots coverage of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) protests in Seattle. It has continued to report on controversial subjects often under-reported in the mainstream media since then; but this week has marked the most controversial chapter in its operations. ®
Indymedia’s statement on the raids.