You Don't Say

Issue section: 

How the FBI have tried to gag Indymedia.

On 7 October, a major attack on free speech took place. It was barely noticed by the mainstream media and almost totally ignored by all but a handful of politicians and activists.

Responding to an FBI federal order, Rackspace, a US company with offices in London, handed over the computer equipment responsible for running and hosting some of the websites that belong to the Indymedia network.

The immediate result was simple - Indymedia websites in places as diverse as Britain, Brazil, Prague, Uruguay, Belgium and many other countries went offline. A secondary, but no less problematic consequence was that some Indymedia equipment that was providing streaming radio services to several online radio stations, including one about to serve the European Social Forum, were stopped.

According to an article on Indymedia's British site there have been a number of recent efforts to shut down the service by the US federal government. In August the Secret Service used a subpoena in an attempt to disrupt the NYC IMC [New York City Indymedia Centre] before the RNC [Republican National Convention]' and the FBI requested Indymedia take down a post on their Nantes website which apparently had a photo of undercover Swiss police.

However it has proved very difficult to find out the reasons behind this latest attempt to close Indymedia. Rackspace are banned from giving any more information, though cryptically their statement about the affair says that they were '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.'

Following legal action by Indymedia, the server equipment was returned, but many questions remain. Firstly, how is it that a US court at the request of the FBI can issue orders to remove equipment from premises in Britain? Particularly given that the British government denies any involvement in the process.

Parliament records for 20 October show the secretary of state, in reply to questions from Jeremy Corbyn and Liberal Democrat Richard Allan, confirming that 'that no UK law enforcement agencies were involved in the matter'.

Serious questions remain about exactly what happened, why it happened and what impact this might have in the future. There is no doubt that as governments around the world clamp down on civil liberties, more and more restrictions will be placed on activists' abilities to organise. Both the International Federation of Journalists and the NUJ are working to get a full explanation for what happened. There is also a campaign to 'Boycott Rackspace' though I think this misses the real problem - the increased powers given to law enforcement agencies.

Indymedia activists point out that the very nature of their decentralised systems ensured that very quickly some services were resumed and sites came back online. Though as I write this, a few weeks after the event, there are still some problems - servers in Italy have lost months of data for instance.

Ultimately however, the ability of activists to use the internet as a means to organise will be severely hampered unless attacks on civil liberties are stopped in their tracks.