Information Highway Robbery

FBI-led seizure of Indymedia computers in U.K. may be tied to U.S. election

The plot sickens. Last week's mysterious seizure in England of computers used by the worldwide IndyMedia activist news collective is becoming more clear—as in clear and present danger.

An international journalists group contends that the goal of the FBI-led seizure (see this Bush Beat item) was election-related intimidation, not just the temporary disruption of the network, though several IndyMedia sites are still down. You may ask how the FBI can seize computers outside its jurisdiction. Are you saying that has stopped our government lately?

The ruckus has barely been covered in the mainstream press, but a story posted this morning notes that the International Federation of Journalists has called for investigation. Here's an excerpt from the story that also includes a characterization of the amorphous IndyMedia collective:

IndyMedia sites, which provide challenging and independent reporting, particularly of political and social justice issues, are open forums where any member of the public can publish their comments. The IFJ believes the seizure may be linked to a September 30 court case in San Jose, California, in which IndyMedia San Francisco and two students at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania successfully opposed an application by Diebold Election Systems Inc. to remove documents claiming to reveal flaws in the design of electronic voting machines, which are due to be used widely in the forthcoming U.S. presidential election.

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Diebold was trying to remove from the Web the postings of e-mail archives that included internal company memos about problems with the machines. Meanwhile, IndyMedia's own machines were functioning quite nicely until the FBI and cops from several other countries stepped in. A total of 21 of IndyMedia's more than 140 sites worldwide were shut down, and some are still offline today. (Keep checking IndyMedia's FBI Coverage page for updates on the saga.) Lots of great information on IndyMedia sites is posted anonymously, which makes it tough for cops and governments to track down. But the computers seized from Rackspace, IndyMedia's Internet service provider, contained hard disks full of juicy information for police agencies to browse through and copy before returning them.

Mathaba's story quotes IFJ General Secretary Aidan White as saying, "We have witnessed an intolerable and intrusive international police operation 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 story continues:

Initial reports suggested FBI officers themselves had seized the servers. The seizure follows visits by the FBI to IndyMedia personnel in the U.S. inquiring about the publication on the French site IndyMedia Nantes of photographs of Swiss undercover police photographing protesters. The photographs remain available on other websites., in Great Britain, notes that this attack on IndyMedia is a team effort by the U.S., U.K., Italy, and Switzerland—the latter two supposedly asked the U.S. for help in suppressing the material on IndyMedia sites, and the U.S. went to British authorities, cited a treaty between the two countries, and got permission from Britain's Home Office to seize the computers used by IndyMedia at Rackspace. The FBI insists that it was just trying to help out the other countries in their investigation. Hmmm.

Whoever came up with the idea of trying to squelch IndyMedia this way, it's only the latest example of electronic warfare against activists and journalists. Some of these attacks by the U.S. government and others may be in retaliation for IndyMedia coverage of globalization summits and protesters. After all, IndyMedia was born out of anti-globalization activists' networking for the big WTO protest in Seattle during the Clinton regime. As for Italy's involvement, Statewatch says, "It is not known what grounds the Italian authorities used, though the government has been hostile to IndyMedia ever since its coverage of Genoa in 2001."

Back in the U.S., for details of the Diebold murk, see this story on, part of the IndyMedia collective. Diebold, the biggest maker of electronic voting machines, was ordered on September 30 in U.S. District Court in San Jose to pay damages and fees for illegally threatening ISPs for copyright violation while knowing that the documents posted by Indymedia weren't copyrighted. Diebold also had argued that the documents and memos about problems with its voting machines had no "public interest" value. In finding against Diebold's intimidation tactics, Judge Jeremy Fogel ruled that IndyMedia's posting of Diebold memos and other documents was proper, saying in part:

The e-mail archive was posted or hyperlinked to for the purpose of informing the public about the problems associated with Diebold’s electronic voting machines. It is hard to imagine a subject the discussion of which could be more in the public interest. If Diebold’s machines in fact do tabulate voters’ preferences incorrectly, the very legitimacy of elections would be suspect.

It's a little difficult to find the memos, but one site that hasn't been shut down is erstwhile presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich's Voting Rights page, a comprehensive look at the controversy about security flaws in electronic voting machines.

Flaws, you ask? Yeah, problems that, according to the Kucinich site's summary of one major study, "allow a person to vote multiple times, view ballots already cast, modify party affiliation on ballots, and cause votes to be miscounted." Oh, I forgot a couple of things: The flaws would allow someone to "create, delete, and modify votes on a voting machine and tamper with audit logs and election results."

Diebold's own site is certainly in no danger from authorities, probably because the company's CEO is so civic-minded. You can go there to read Diebold CEO Walden O'Dell's September 2003 vow in a fundraising letter (after he returned from a trip to George W. Bush's Crawford ranch) that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes for the president next year."

After the letter was leaked last year, O'Dell was blasted in the press. He promised to be "more sensitive," but insisted to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "I'm not doing anything wrong or complicated, but it obviously did leave me open to the criticism I've received. I've taken it personally; it's very painful, it may have injured our company, and I feel really badly about that."

We feel your pain, Walden, but for different reasons.

The Plain Dealer story provided the chilling context:

Because the fundraising revelations fell closely on the heels of security questions raised about Diebold's machines in a later-questioned Johns Hopkins University study, O'Dell's critics began to suggest that Diebold should not be allowed to be involved in elections.

The company was at the time vying for a place on Ohio's favored-vendor list, which it has since won.

Activists have tweaked the establishment in several ways electronically. There's the little matter of trying to make sure that our upcoming vote is at least a little more democratic than Afghanistan's or Iraq's. But I'd say that the authorities have other reasons to be really, really pissed off at IndyMedia. In late August, several lists of Republican National Convention delegates were posted on IndyMedia sites. The lists included home and e-mail addresses and the New York–area hotels at which they were staying. The Associated Press's Curt Anderson reported at the time that a federal grand jury, at the behest of the Secret Service, began investigating and subpoenaed a Web hosting service, Calyx Internet Access, for IndyMedia contact info.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a tiger that guards the Internet flow of info from the constant threat of elephants and dinosaurs (and their lawyers and other cheetahs), is helping IndyMedia investigate the attacks on its sites. And the old-school ACLU jumped into the RNC-IndyMedia fray; its associate legal director, Ann Beeson, put the Secret Service probe into perspective:

"This type of investigation is really a form of intimidation and a message to activists that they will pay a price for speaking out.

"The posting of publicly available information about people who are in the news should not trigger an investigation. Indeed, if the mere posting of the delegates' names is cause for alarm, then the Secret Service should be investigating the many Republican websites where the same kind of information is available."

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