Towards the end of April of 2001, tens of thousands of protesters were demonstrating against the FTAA in the streets of Quebec City. There was an IMC center setup in Quebec for journalists on the streets to capture what the mainstream media was too quick to brush aside. Towards the end of the protests, on April 21st 2 FBI agents and an agent of the US Secret Service showed up at the Seattle IMC center with a sealed court order. This order prevented volunteers from publicizing any details about the order itself and the agents used hyperbole about potential threats to the president of the US as attempts to scare us to do what they wanted, although the order itself had nothing to do with what they were claiming. After consulting with legal council (the EFF, ACLU and EPIC) a legal request to ammend the order in order to lift the gag was created and submitted to the judge. Almost a week later, on the 27th, the amended order was issued which enabled publicity about the warrant itself without facing contempt of court. However, before the amended order was signed by the judge, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (one of the two main newspapers in Seattle) had learned of the event and had published a story on it. This was clear that the gag order was only in place so that they could spin the story their way, as they leaked it to the mainstream press.

The order detailed that the IMC must supply the FBI with "all user connection logs" for April 20th and 21st from a webserver occupying a specific address which the Secret Service believed belonged to the IMC. The order stated that this was part of an "ongoing criminal investigation" into acts that could constitute violations of Canadian law, specifically theft and mischief. It was learned that at some point during a tense moment of the protest, when the IMC center was packed with people doing all kinds of things, someone burst into the space waving an attache over their heads and yelling to the crowd that they had just stolen this from an undercover CSIS (the equiv. of the Canadian CIA) van. Supposedly the undercover agents had been spotted and when they left their vehicle, the window was smashed and this attache was grabbed. This person wanted to get the contents published online as soon as possible and was not being discrete about it. The contents of the attache were undercover reports (in french, but were later translated into english) by agencies that had infiltrated various protest organizations in order to determine what they were planning and how to disrupt it. The plans that they had managed to secretly uncover were nothing more than marching colors and directions and where various people of interest for targeting of protests would be located, along with sparse information about how the police would intercept these marches. Presumably item detailing the US president's arrival at the airport (this was public knowledge, was in the newspapers and the attache information just was a call out flyer urging people to protest his arrival) is what got our government public knowledge of the president's arrival at the airport.

The FBI was interested in these posts that were made to the IMC websites, primarily because they wanted to determine specific information about them. IMC and legal council fought this order on first amendment grounds, specifically the right to communicate anonymously with the press for political purposes, and that that the order was asking for disclosure of information identifying an indiscriminately large number of users of a website devoted to political discourse. They weren't wanting the specific log entries for these posts, but rather all of the log data that was retained for the 48 hours in question. The legal argument was that besides the protections afforded to the press this was akin to a fishing expedition which would identify every single person who visited the website during this period, and what they were reading or posting. This kind of fishing expedition is a great way to chill political speech and was famously tried in 1956 in Alabama to force the NAACP to give up its membership lists, which eventually the Supreme Court stopped from happening.

When the FBI found out that the IMC was pursuing all legal possibilities for squashing this order, the pressure was intensified as IMC received contact from the FBI to let them know that if they did not comply by a specific date, they would simply go to the ISP that was hosting the server and seize it. It came to our attention that our service provider (Speakeasy, who was graciously donating the service) had already been visited and had been served. They were under a similar gag order and were not allowed to speak with us about the details. Clearly this was an attempt to harassment and scrutinze them in a blatant attempt to disrupt our relationship, the more legal heat they received, the less they are going to be interested in continuing to provide us with a free service.

Eventually the legal proceedings succeeded and the IMC was not required to turn over this information. The common speculation was that this was not just a fishing expedition, but the authorities actually had apprehended people involved in liberating the attache and were just wanting evidence for prosecution, other possibilities included the people who had liberated the documents were actually agent provocateurs and this was just an attempt to shake up the IMC and the counter-globalization movement that had just exploded in everyone's face.

What was learned from this event? One primary lesson was learned, that if you have information, you may be required to turn it over. However, if you have a public policy which states clearly that you do not gather information, and you actually abide by this policy, then you are not required to hand anything over. Servers by default log absolutely everything possible, so by default a webserver or mail server that is setup is involuntarily collecting data on its visitors for anyone to come demanding. As a result Riseup developed log anonymizing patches to make it easier for those who run servers to retain less data. In the United States, there is currently no requirement to retain data on users of a server, but you may be required to provide all data on a user which you have retained. The policy to not log data was accepted by IMC and is something that IMC activists, Riseup and the EFF promote to anyone who is running services for activists.

In August of 2004, during the RNC protests here in NYC, the same scenario played out here. The subpoena was for information leading to the posters of a list of RNC Delegates and their whereabouts during the convention. Fortunately, the upstream provider was an ally and fought the supoena with the aid of the ACLU and the EFF and won, even had they not won, the logs were anonymized and would have provided no information whatsoever.

Last modified 10 years ago Last modified on Apr 12, 2008, 12:48:26 AM