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