On 7 October 2004 US authorities seized two internet servers in London belonging to the independent media network Indymedia. More than 20 Indymedia websites around the world were shut down as a result of the raid, with the effective removal of almost 1 million articles. Indymedia immediately condemned the seizures as an unprecedented and unacceptable attack on independent media, press freedom, the freedom of speech, and the right to communicate.
The most chilling aspect of the seizures was the information blackout that followed. Indymedia was unable to discover who had actually seized their servers, who had ordered it, why it had happened, and where the servers had been taken.
The servers were seized from Rackspace, a US-based web hosting company with offices in London. Immediately following the seizure Rackspace would not comment on the incident, having seemingly been issued with a gagging order. Further enquiries with various police and law enforcement agencies in the US and the UK also drew a blank. Although initial reports suggested that the FBI had taken the servers, the FBI denied any involvement and the UK Home Office would neither confirm nor deny any knowledge of the incident.
'The fact that the authorities' actions are shrouded in mystery leaves Indymedia in the Kafkaesque position of not knowing the identity of its accusers or the nature of their claim,' said David Dadge, editor for the International Press Institute.
Solidarity statements were quickly issued by several organisations including the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). Aidan White, general secretary for the IFJ, said: 'The way this has been done smacks more of intimidation of legitimate journalistic inquiry than crime-busting.' Tim Gopsill of the National Union of Journalists said: 'If the security services of the UK or US can just walk in and take away a server, then there is no freedom of expression.'
Several days after the seizure the only clue as to what had happened came from a statement from FBI spokesperson Joe Parris (given to Agence France Presse) in which he said the seizure was 'not an FBI operation', but that the FBI had been acting on behalf of the Italian and Swiss authorities. Rackspace later issued a statement saying that a subpoena was issued 'pursuant to a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, which establishes procedures for countries to assist each other in investigations such as international terrorism, kidnapping and money laundering'.
'We have serious concerns about the use of such international cooperation frameworks to obscure legal process, undermine civil liberties and erode communication rights,' said an Indymedia volunteer after almost one week of enquiries had failed to unearth any further information on the server seizures.
This is not the first time Indymedia has been targeted by US authorities. During the Republican National Convention in August, the Secret Service attempted to obtain private records from New York Indymedia's Internet Service Provider; the ISP refused. The FBI attempted to obtain similar records from Indymedia servers during the massive protests against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas in Quebec City but lost in the courts.
Finally as information began to surface, Swiss authorities said they had opened a criminal investigation into Indymedia's reporting of the 2003 G8 Summit in Evian, while an Italian prosecutor investigating an anarchist group reportedly also requested assistance from the US to obtain information about posts on Indymedia, but apparently did not request the seizure of the servers. In Italy the Berlusconi government has waged a three-year campaign against independent and alternative media since the 2001 G8 Summit in Genoa.
The servers were eventually returned to Rackspace on 13 October, but again the blackout continued with Indymedia unable to discover who had returned the servers.
Indymedia volunteers have been calling for supporters to sign a solidarity declaration denouncing the hard-drive seizure as an unacceptable attack on press freedom, freedom of expression and privacy. They are demanding a full disclosure of the names of organisations and individuals involved in the seizure, a copy of the court order, and an independent investigation into any violations of due process. Numerous organisations have expressed their solidarity, and at the recent European Social Forum in London, the Assembly of the Social Movements fully supported the solidarity declaration.
'I would say that this is an indication of the successfulness of the Indymedia network,' said Peter Phillips, director of Project Censored. 'Freedom of information is a radical idea when applied in a fair manner, and radical ideas will always be suppressed by the transnational corporate elites whenever possible.'
For more information, visit www.indymedia.org and www.indymedia.org.uk