On 7 October the hosting company Rackspace removed two web servers from their London office and handed them over to unnamed United States authorities. They did so in response to what they claim was a legallyissued court order, but are unable to say anything more because the request came with a gagging clause that forbids them from divulging any details.
The two servers hosted a number of websites which make up the Independent Media Centre, Indymedia. The sites affected included Ambazonia, Uruguay, Andorra, Poland, Western Massachusetts; Nice, Nantes, Lille, Marseille (all France); Euskal Herria (Basque Country); Liège, OostVlaanderen and WestVlaanderen, Antwerpen (all Belgium); Belgrade, Portugal, Prague, Galiza, Italy, Brazil, UK, part of the Germany site, and the global Indymedia Radio site. When the servers were switched off, these sites went blank and much of the Indymedia network was silenced.
Indymedia was founded in 1999 at the time of the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organisation. It has become a vital news source for the antiglobalisation movement, giving a voice to underground political opinion, publishing material that governments would rather remained secret, and often demonstrating the inadequacy of the establishment medias coverage of these important issues.
So it was hardly surprising that the Rackspace raid sent conspiracy theorists into overdrive especially when so little concrete information was available about who was behind the removal of the servers.
It quickly became apparent that the court order was issued in the United States and that whoever had gone to court was acting on behalf of a foreign government under a mutual assistance treaty.
Two weeks earlier the FBI had asked one of the French sites to remove a photograph of two undercover Swiss police photographing a rally in Italy because it revealed personal information about them. So the first suspicion was that the FBI, acting on behalf of the Italians or the Swiss, had led the operation against Rackspace, probably because Rackspace is a US company.
The FBI has since denied any involvement, leaving the question of who obtained the court order unresolved. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) claims that the Italian and Swiss governments have been positively identified as the governments concerned; neither government has so far commented.
The two servers involved have now been returned to Rackspace by whichever authorities had been holding them. They are now in the capable hands of the EFF, who are making copies of all of the data and looking for signs of tampering before they are placed back on the network. After all, who knows what bugging software might have been installed while they were in government hands?
Indymedia sites were quickly back online, using alternative servers around the world, while the photograph of the smiling Swiss undercover agents that may or may not have provoked the raid can be found at a number of mirror sites, confounding those who would have it removed from view; so the long term damage to the network is minimal.
However, the whole episode leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. The degree of contempt for procedure, the rule of law and natural justice displayed by the authorities still shocks. For those of us active in online journalism and campaigning it brings into stark relief other denials of civil liberties, like the arbitrary detentions at Guantánamo and Belmarsh. It also makes us aware of just how vulnerable we all are, and raises many questions for openDemocracy itself.
If Indymedia can be taken offline so easily, then what of our server, Plato, sitting at our internet service providers (ISP) data centre? openDemocracys ISP is a Britishbased firm, but a foreign government could easily ask the Home Office for a warrant under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) and seize it. Ripa even comes with its own gagging clauses, so the hosting company would be unable to tell us why wed suddenly gone offline, or who had taken our server away.
The decision to target the hosting provider a commercial company with no particular interest in what is being published by the sites it hosts is a worrying precedent. Indymedia and its lawyers could be expected to defend their right to speak freely, and indeed the EFF is already preparing to go to court on their behalf on the grounds that the US court was in breach of the countrys constitution in ordering the seizure of the servers.
An ISP, on the other hand, will be concerned with staying in business and could be expected to comply more easily with such an order as indeed it did.
If the police arrived at the BBC with a warrant and a gagging order, its a safe bet that senior editorial staff would choose to go to jail rather than comply. They would have the backing of the corporation and its legal department. But if the police turned up at openDemocracys hosting company with the same documents, we could not expect them to do the same for us.
Online publishing has always been a risky business, both financially and in terms of building reach and influence. It now seems that the civil authorities take us seriously enough to be worried, at least some of the time, by what were saying. But we cannot, and will not, accept that they can arbitrarily close down websites in this way. If the Swiss want a photo removed then they should argue their case in open court. Anything less is a step towards state control and a closed society.
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