While tens of thousands of protesters faced tear gas and plastic bullets in the streets of Quebec on April 21, nary a squirt of pepper spray was disturbing the operations of the Independent Media Center in Seattle. Volunteers gathered information for the IMC's Web site all afternoon about the FTAA protests and civil disobedience at the U.S.-Canadian border in Blaine, Washington, uploading photographs and first-hand accounts of activists who often double as unpaid "reporters" for the international grassroots network. But around 7 p.m., the IMC received three unexpected visitors--two FBI agents and an agent of the U.S. Secret Service--who delivered a sealed court order.

While the IMC was charged with no crime, the document cited "an ongoing criminal investigation into acts which would constitute violations of Sections 322 (theft) and 430 (mischief) of the Criminal Code of Canada." The order further requested that the organization supply the FBI with all "user connection logs" on April 20 and 21 from a Web server that authorities say belongs to the IMC. (A user connection log is the Internet address of a computer requesting access to a Web site.)

An accompanying gag order prohibited the organization from talking about the event

Did the IMC post secret plans
about police tactics in Quebec?


or even the very existence of the court order itself. After a legal fight, the order was amended on April 27, allowing the IMC to begin telling its side of the story.

According to the IMC, the acts that sparked the investigation and the resulting court order were one or two messages posted to an IMC newswire in the early morning of April 21. Allegedly, these posts contained information obtained from stolen Canadian government and police documents, including classified information on the travel itinerary of George W. Bush and police strategies for derailing the efforts of FTAA protesters. According to David Burman, the IMC's legal counsel, the court order requires the IMC to turn over user connection logs from an IP address that does not exist. (An IP address is a string of numbers assigned to every device that interacts directly with the Internet.) "The U.S. Attorney's office indicated to us that they made a typographical error in the order," Burman says, "and intend to correct it."

The IMC legal team is now trying to convince the U.S. Attorney's office to "narrow" the scope of the far-reaching court order. "If this had been a server belonging to the New York Times," Burman says, "I suspect they would have hesitated before taking the course they did."

Nancy Chang, senior litigation attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, says the IMC's user logs would "provide a virtual who's who of people associated with the IMC and its political views." The Seattle IMC was able to find two postings that appeared on the Montreal IMC which partially matched the description given by the federal agents. Those postings, according to the IMC, detail police strategies for "hindering protesters' mass action." None of the materials posted to IMC sites across the world contain information about Bush's travel plans, says the group.

While the United States and Canada do collaborate in criminal investigations, Burman says, assisting Canadian authorities does not come close to "justifying an infringement on the rights of the press or the free speech of Internet users. This could be an important case for clarifying both the application of the First Amendment to the Internet."

Chang says the investigation raises serious questions about whether the United States and Canada intend to keep tabs on "anti-globalization activists and discourage participation in the movement."


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