Censorship by hard drive

The idea for the Independent Media Center—with its radically egalitarian slogan “Become the Media!”—was birthed around the time of the “Battle of Seattle” in 1999, when anti-globalization activists united in a first major effort to shut down a meeting of the World Trade Organization. Since that time, Indymedia (as it is now known) has become a global Internet platform with 140 Web sites worldwide that makes communication between the anti-war, anti-trade protest underground as easy as logging on. (Not surprisingly, the last time Indymedia seemed an active force in Sacramento was at the time of the 2003 ag ministerial conference held here.)

Lately, things have gotten scary for the Indymedia people.

On October 7, two of the collective’s servers (hard drives hosting 20 Indymedia Web sites and 10 radio stream feeds) were seized by the FBI from the Independent Media Center computer “host” offices in Britain. The seizures occurred after a now-sealed U.S. federal-court order was delivered to Rackspace Managed Hosting, a Texas-based firm that “hosts” the Indymedia Web sites. Though the hard drives were returned on October 13, nobody—no government, no agency—will say why they were taken in the first place.

And nobody will say whether it could happen again.

News of the seizure and the secrecy still surrounding it remains chilling for those of us in the American media who champion free speech and the right to dissent. Abducting a computer hard drive these days, without what First Amendment lawyers call a “compelling state interest,” is the equivalent of snatching some publisher’s printing press or dismantling a broadcast transmitter.

At the time of the October 7 event, FBI agents said they were acting on behalf of the government of Switzerland, which happened to be involved in an ongoing investigation of a French Indymedia Web site. But the Swiss government has denied this. Anyway, can a foreign government really silence an independent American news source based on a secret process?

Another unsubstantiated theory has the secret seizure tied to the recent U.S. election. The event might have been linked to a September 30 court case in California, muse some activists, in which Indymedia San Francisco opposed an application by Diebold Election Systems Inc. to remove e-mail archives and internal company memos that claimed to reveal flaws in the design of their electronic voting machines. The hypothesis is a classic conspiracy theory. But because nobody has come forward with the truth, it’s hard to dispel the rumors, however wild.

As with most government secrets, the solution is full disclosure and the truth. Attorneys for the Electronic Frontier Foundation have filed a motion to unseal the secret court order. We hope they succeed in getting it. Otherwise, unknown governments or agencies have gotten away with an unconstitutional and dangerous act of censorship.