LONDON – Agents from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on Thursday seized two Internet servers in Britain that host the Web sites of the global news network Indymedia. Two days later, there was still no clarification of why the computers were confiscated or who is holding them.
The confiscation came just days before the European Social Forum, the region’s major civil society gathering, in which Indymedia is to have a strong presence.
Indymedia as the Independent Media Centers are known is a network of more than 140 national and thematic "open-publishing" Web sites where independent activists or journalists can publish their news articles, stories and other material online, with no editorial filter.
Created in 1999 to report on the protests against the World Trade Organization’s ministerial conference in the U.S. city of Seattle, Indymedia has since become the main news source of the anti-globalization movement, continuing to serve as an alternative to mainstream media outlets worldwide.
The two servers seized on Thursday were located in the London offices of the U.S.-based company Rackspace, one of the network’s hosting providers. On Saturday, it was not yet clear why the computer hardware had been seized or who is now holding it.
More than 20 national Web sites some of the countries affected are Uruguay, France, Italy, Brazil, England and Germany were out of service for at least 24 hours.
Most of those sites have been reinstated using substitute Internet servers but Indymedia activists fear that a great deal of digital material may have been lost.
The seizure came just one week before the start of the third edition of the European Social Forum (ESF) in London, Oct. 15-17.
In parallel to the ESF, Indymedia promoted a four-day event on "communication rights and tactical media production" in collaboration with other organizations such as the Association for Progressive Communication and the World Association of Christian Communications.
"This attack against Indymedia is an affront to communication rights and the right to privacy," said an Indymedia activist organizing the European Forum on Communication Rights, in London Oct. 14.
"Rackspace UK complied with a legal order," the company declared in a statement, saying that it "is acting as a good corporate citizen and is cooperating with international law enforcement authorities." The company did not provide any more details.
"It is not an FBI operation. Through a legal assistance treaty, the subpoena was on behalf of a third country," FBI spokesman Joe Parris told Agence France-Presse.
Apparently, the request for the FBI action was submitted by government agencies in Switzerland and Italy. The FBI acted in compliance with the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT).
The MLAT establishes procedures for signatory countries to collaborate in investigations regarding international terrorism, kidnapping and money laundering.
"But these allegations have no relation with Indymedia activities," an Indymedia activist who preferred to remain anonymous told IPS.
"We do not understand why the FBI has acted against Indymedia, which is an open communication project organized through public meetings and mailing lists. We think there must be some hidden reason behind," said the activist.
The seizure triggered strong reactions by many civil society groups around the world.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) called for an investigation into the "intolerable and intrusive" action that silenced the Web sites.
"More intimidation than crime-busting," IFJ general-secretary Aidan White said. "The seizing of computers and the high profile nature of this incident suggests that someone wanted to stifle these independent voices in journalism."
According to the IFJ, the confiscation might be related to a court case heard Sept. 30 in San Jose, Calif., against some Indymedia activists who denounced the Web-based flaws in the electronic voting machines to be used in the Nov. 2 U.S. presidential election.
But it is not the first time that Indymedia has suffered such attacks. A month ago the FBI asked Indymedia to take down a photo of undercover Swiss police published on the Indymedia Nantes (France) site.
Indymedia was attacked during the protests against the meeting of the world’s eight richest countries (G8) in Genoa, in July 2001, when the Italian riot police damaged its media center.
"In the seized servers there was all the information related to Genoa events. We are very worried," Laura Tartarini from the Genoa Legal Forum said. The Legal Forum is the group of lawyers set up before the G8 meeting to deal with legal consequences of the protests.
Together with the Legal Forum, some Italian Indymedia activists are currently examining the videos recorded during the protests to help those activists accused of vandalism now being processed in Genoa court.
"Ironically, this violation of the freedom of speech comes while the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society, begun in 2003 in Geneva and to be concluded in Tunis in 2005, is still ongoing," said Italian senator Fiorello Cortiana.