A week after the FBI disrupted about twenty Web sites operated by local chapters of the Indymedia network, there is still no clear explanation as to why agents seized some of the radical news organizations’ servers. Yesterday, agents returned both of the confiscated computer hard drives used to house the affected sites to Rackspace, the U.S.-based Web hosting company that owns them. But Indymedia and supporters say the return of the equipment raises more questions than it answers.
Last Thursday, agents from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation seized the two hard drives from Rackspace’s London offices. Rackspace said had they complied with a subpoena and turned over the devices, used by some Indymedia Web sites in Europe, the United States, Africa and South America. According to initial news reports, the subpoena was exercised by the FBI in cooperation with the governments of Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Italy.
Last week’s action against Indymedia, a grassroots, non-hierarchical global media network, effectively shut down sites operated from four continents. As of press time, most of the sites are back up and running, though six including one in western Massachusetts remain inactive. Indymedia spokesperson David Meieran said many of the sites were running within the first 24 hours as mirrors and temporary replacement servers were arranged by Indymedia centers throughout the world.
Due to questions about the returned drives’ integrity, Indymedia is considering them "compromised" and not currently using them, said Meieran. He said it is unlikely that the drives will be used until the reasons for the seizure and the extent of the investigation are determined.
For its part, the FBI has denied having any connection to the seizure outside of assisting in the initial subpoena execution. FBI spokesperson Joe Parris told Agence France-Presse that the request to seize the drives came from a "third party." The FBI told The NewStandard that Switzerland was the source of the request and directed further inquiries to Geneva.
The Swiss government, however, has told European media outlets that it did not request the servers. Swiss federal prosecutor Daniel Zapelli did say, however, that they were investigating the Indymedia coverage of last year’s G8 protest in Evian, though he declined to offer specifics.
According to Meieran, many Indymedia volunteers initially suspected the Swiss government had pushed for last Thursday’s seizure after Indymedia rebuffed a month-old request, delivered by the FBI, for the removal of pictures showing undercover Swiss police officers photographing protesters. But Meieran cautioned that all the theories are just speculation at this point.
Now that the hard drives have been returned, Meieran said, Indymedia and those committed to free speech need to keep pushing to find out why they were seized and guard against a recurrence.
"We’re putting together a call for consolidating the efforts of the groups and people who support us," Meieran said. "We are creating a Web site with a petition so we can find out why this happened and if any international laws were broken.
"Also and this is far more important we want to make sure this doesn’t happen again," Meieran added.
Whatever the cause, many groups have stepped forward to condemn the seizure and offer support to Indymedia. The American Civil Liberties Union, Reporters Without Borders, the International Federation of Journalists, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Project Censored and Dutch and Belgian journalism associations have all offered a variety of assistance.
In an official statement, the general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, Adrian White, said: "We have witnessed an intolerable and intrusive international police action against a network specializing in independent journalism. The way this has been done smacks more of intimidation of legitimate journalistic inquiry than crime-busting. The seizing of computers and the high profile nature of this incident suggests that someone wanted to stifle these independent voices in journalism. We need a full investigation into why this action took place, who took part and who authorized it."
Peter Phillips, director of the Sonoma University-based Project Censored, said in a press statement: "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 whenever possible. We must act on our right to freedom of information to keep it safe, and when repressed find new channels and means to succeed."
Reporters Without Borders issued a similar call. According to a press release from the journalists’ advocacy organization, letters seeking an explanation for the action were sent to government officials in the UK, U.S., Switzerland and Italy.
Lawyers with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights advocacy group, have contacted both the FBI and officials with Rackspace in an effort to assist Indymedia. As of press time, the group said neither the FBI nor the company had addressed their inquiries.
Meieran says EFF lawyers are the only ones currently representing Indymedia as a whole, though, he says, the UK Indymedia and associates in Europe have retained separate counsel.
This is not the first instance of government interference with Indymedia’s activities. Directly before the Republican National Convention in New York City, four Indymedia administrators and their Web hosting company were questioned by the Secret Service in response to an anonymous post on the New York City Indymedia Web site that carried the names of convention delegates and the hotels in which they were staying.